I wait about 15 minutes after Murray leaves. Then I open the door and poke my head into the main room. It's a whirlwind of what, to my eyes, is chaos. Paul and Jean would disagree -- they know each of these people by name (I've got maybe 25% down), and can tell you with full certainty what each of them is doing every minute of the day. They could be lying -- I'd never know the difference. In the end, everything seems to get done, more or less the way it was outlined in our twice-daily briefs, with relatively few surprises. Even on a day like today, with a potential shitstorm of epic proportions looming on the horizon, I'd stake money that Paul and Jean have every hatch battened.
Murray is nowhere in sight.
There seems to be a knot of particular commotion around the door to the copier room -- a handful of people are grouped around the door, trying to look busy, but clearly eavesdropping. The ambient noise in the room keeps me from hearing anything at first, but a couple of steps in that direction gets me in earshot of two elevated female voices. One I don't recognize. The other is clearly Jessica's. I turn and head back into the office, absentmindedly clapping someone carrying a large stack of flyers on the back. Such signs of camaraderie and solidarity are so instinctual to me now that I don't even look at him long enough to register his face. Gary's right -- I am a politician.
I close the door behind me. If Jessica's laying into a staffer, it's better that I'm not around. Given a choice between protecting an innocent from my wife's passionate, slashing tongue, supporting the love of my life as she destroys a young world view, or hiding in my office while it all goes down, I'll happily play the chicken. This way, I can support Jess later when she tells me the story, but still shake hands and make up with the staffer down the road (if she doesn't immediately walk out the door).
I pick up the phone and punch in Paul's extension. After a few long rings, he picks up.
"Paul, have you seen Jess?" I ask, pretending the last few moments never happened.
"Um ... yeah. She's right here."
"Ask her to stop by, will ya?" After a moment of silence, I add, "when she's got a second."
"Sure," he says, and hangs up.
I stand by my desk for a moment, trying to decide where I should be when she comes in, if she decides to listen to Paul. Communicating with my wife through a staffer is not the smartest relationship tactic, but it is far better than getting involved in whatever conflict is brewing in the copy room. After testing out a casual lean against my desk and a pensive stance beneath the Kennedy photo over the file cabinets, I decide to simply sit on the sofa. I'll appear relaxed and non-threatening -- at least until I start to talk.
Ten minutes pass -- just long enough for me to begin to think she has told Paul to go to hell, that if I want to see her I can come find her myself -- before the door opens without a knock. Not even Murray would do that -- only Jessica. It's her right and privilege as my wife and I would never expect her to do anything less. Right now, though, I could use a bit of the upper-hand a knock might give me. Ah, well.
She sees me on the couch and smiles. Her eyes, though, are pure fire. "What's up?"
"Where were you?" I ask, innocently enough.
"Well." She flops down on the couch next to me. "Let me tell you how I've spent the last couple of hours."
Jessica is beautiful -- a far more stunning woman than a guy of my modest looks deserves. Her hair is the silky color of corn, her lips are small and perfectly sculpted, and her eyes are huge, bright and a deep blue-gray that seems somehow impossible outside of a painting. When she's angry, even when I'm the target, her beauty is intensified by a sort of inner electricity. She's that kind of electric now, and so stunning I almost forget what I need to tell her.
"So, after the staff meeting, I thought about what the fax said, you know, about the 'anonymous staffer' who 'denied the report.'" Since nobody seemed to be following up that lead, and since Michael was *kind* enough not to assign a task to me, I figured I do a little digging myself."
I pull myself more upright on the couch. I hadn't thought twice about the staffer mentioned in the fax. We knew it came from the Richardson camp and I was so focused on the consequences. Besides, the staffer had, according to the report, denied it. It didn't occur to me to follow up. Now, though, I'm intrigued. "And?"
"And it took me exactly three phone calls to find out who it was." She smiles at her triumph. "Sharon."
I do a quick mental inventory. I ... have no idea who Sharon is. I'm terrible with names -- it always bites me in the ass. Murray calls it "the worst deficiency a politician could have." I always shrug and say, "It could be worse -- I could be a Republican." Murray never laughs. "Who is Sharon?" I ask.
Jessica gives me her exasperated face. "She's been under Jean for like three months." My face is still blank. "She wrote your remarks for the Internet Workers thing."
Now I remember. Small, a bit mousy, a damn good writer -- way better than her apparent youth should warrant. She's maybe 22, 23. "Yeah, oh, of course."
"And now you are thinking, 'What the hell is Sharon doing answering questions about the campaign?'"
Actually, I'm thinking about whether I should break in with my news now, or let this play out a bit longer -- trying to figure out which way would be less painful for both of us. Either way it appears grim. "Yeah," I agree, "what..."
"The coffee shop on the corner. Apparently she was "ambushed" yesterday by some tall, dark-haired chick she didn't recognize."
"I figure. Or another Richardson staffer. Anyway, she said this woman cornered her by the creamer, and started firing off questions about you being gay in college. She said she was totally stunned. And, she denied..."
"Wait," I interrupt her. "Yesterday?"
Jessica raises her eyebrows. "Exactly."
I stand up and cross the room. "Jesus. We could have had a full day's head start..."
Jessica stands, too. "Right. So I tracked her down to the copier room and laid into her. What the hell was she thinking not telling anyone? She said she gets kooky questions all the time since she joined the campaign, so she'd almost forgotten by the time she got back here. And after this morning ... well, she didn't want to get fired."
"So I tore into her for a few, and then turned her over to Paul when he came to find me." She crosses her arms. Her stance is wide, and she looks much taller than her five feet, two inches. "I told him to sit her down in a room somewhere and to go find Murray."
"Jesus." I repeat. What we could have done with that extra day.
"I know. Jean is going to flip out." She starts to head toward the door. "I better go tell her before Paul does -- she'll take it better..."
She turns back around, just as I say, "There's something..." Our eyes lock and, after five sends of peering at my insides with those deep, sweet blue eyes, she knows everything.
She sinks down onto the couch. "Oh, god, Justin."
I can't tell if she's about to cry, or about to explode. "It's not all true -- not like they are saying."
"Mmm-hm." Her eyes are locked on the floor.
"But ... there's enough truth. There's a basis in..."
And then it's both: the tears and the explosion. And, unexpectedly, a fist in my chest. I'm so surprised by her fury, and how quickly she moves across the room to hit me, I'm stunned, and I start to lose my balance. She hits me again, this time with both fists at the same time. They land squarely below my ribs, right in the solar plexus, and with an undignified "ack," I stumble back into the file cabinet. I hold on, trying to keep myself upright while my paralyzed diaphragm twitches and I try to suck air into my lungs. When she comes at me again, I put one arm up to block her, which results in my slipping to the floor, back against the wall. She kicks at me.
"Motherfucker!" She follows me to the ground, pounding on my shoulder, fists alternately open and closed.
"Jesus Christ!" I manage. She stops hitting, and just sits on the carpet. The sobs get louder for a second, and then quiet. After a few moments I seem to be able to mostly breathe all right, and I half crouch, half crawl away until I'm sort of standing/leaning against the desk.
After thirty seconds, a look of calm replaces the fury on her face, and she stands, smoothing her rumpled linen pants.
"I'm sorry," I begin. I ..."
She doesn't look at me. "I was so pissed this morning. So fucking angry. Everything we stand for, all this good, and they'd use it to make lies, to turn it against us."
"Look, most of it is untrue. Let me tell you what really happened."
"Does it matter?" Now she looks at me. Those same blue eyes. They crush me. "Does it even fucking matter? 'Cause if I'd known, I wouldn't have been so fucking angry. So fucking self-righteous. I would have been able to really help."
"It was so long ago, and so insignificant..."
"Do you have any idea what this does? To me?" The tears are in her eyes again, but I don't think she's even aware. "Every time they show that picture of Hillary smiling up at Bill while he fucking lies about Monica we all think, we all say 'Christ, that's so sad.' That's me now. Jesus, the embarrassment. That's me. Except you didn't even have the decency to fuck a fat chick. It had to be a man."
"Listen, you're being..."
"Why couldn't you just tell me? After all the ... I deserve not to be... Does Michael know?" She takes a step toward me. "He does, doesn't he? Jesus Justin -- I'm your wife!"
"I just told him. Just now. He came to me. He guessed, and I confirmed, and told him everything."
She shakes her head. "When I was yelling at Sharon, all I could think is 'you did this to him, you little bitch.' But you did it to your fucking self, didn't you?"
For a second I think she might hit me again, but instead she turns and heads toward the door, wiping her eyes with a tissue from her pocket.
"Don't you even want to know? What really...?"
She stops at the door and turns to me, smiling. It's the most heartbreaking thing I've ever seen. "Not really. Not now. I've got to go practice my stupid Hillary face." She opens the door. "I hope I at least left a big fucking bruise." She closes the door behind her. She doesn't slam it -- she wouldn't want to give anything away to anyone. She'll head to her little office, likely, or to the car. And she'll look calm and together, her eyes a little red but otherwise normal (she doesn't wear mascara, so no messy streaks). And no one will notice anything odd. She's that good.
I keep leaning against the desk, playing the last few minutes over in my head, trying to figure out what I could have done different. Apart from being honest with her years ago. Nothing comes to mind. The good news is that it's clear she'll back me. The bad news... I try to decide whether I should go after her. Will it help? Will it show I'm sorry? Or will it just extend her pain and make things worse? My stomach is aching where she hit me. Jesus, what do I do now? Where's Murray when I need him?
And then I realize where Murray was going. Something in the way he cocked his head when he said "move on." And he held onto the knob a little too tightly as he stood in the doorway. Fuck. I check my watch. He's been gone for almost 40 minutes.
I reach across my desk for my cellphone. My stomach twitches painfully with the stretch. I hit "2" and "#," and after a few seconds it rings. Once, twice, three times. I realize I'm holding my breath.