TITLE: Center of Gravity
RATING: I'd put PG-13 for adult themes.
SUMMARY: He finds her sometimes like this.
He finds her sometimes like this.
He finds her on the banks of the Potomac, on nights where clouds obscure the moonlight, the pitchy darkness invading her eyes and marring her skin. She stares into the little lapping waves, sitting with her feet hanging off the edge of the pier. He finds her with tearstains on her cheeks, or he finds her smoking these long thin French cigarettes that must cost her an arm and a leg.
He doesn't mind. They make her look glamorous, like something out of a black and white movie from the forties, even though he's read every one of the Surgeon General's reports. He likes the way the smoke curls in the night air, and he likes the way her lips purse as she takes a long draw, as they touch the tiny gold insignia on the white paper and leave behind smudges of lipstick.
He likes watching her move because she does it so well, because she's been practicing her entire life for these moments in the dark. Because she has long legs and ungainly arms that she spent twelve years in ballet trying to train. So now she moves like sand in a breeze, and he doesn't even mind when she blows cigarette smoke at him because in it, he sees her.
Sometimes he brings a bottle with him, usually vodka because she likes the way it looks like water but isn't. She likes the unexpected burn down her throat, likes the trompe l'oeil, likes the water at her feet and the liquor in her mouth.
She tells him sometimes that she hates her life. On these occasions, she drinks the whole bottle and he must come back and fetch her car before dawn from the little parking lot. Other times, she is antsy with nervous, ecstatic, contagious energy. These are the times she kisses him and does not check to make sure no one's watching.
Sometimes her kisses are black and sometimes they are cotton candy. He has come to accept this, and he has learned to bend with her winds so that he can keep her from breaking, because sometimes she is on the edge.
So this time he has found her, her suit jacket flung across the hood of her car alongside her shoes. When he glances through the open window, he sees fifty manila folders strewn about her backseat, each one bulging with post-its to mark important facts about arsenic in New Mexico, the FTAA, Taiwan, Jiang Zemin, the Gaza Strip.
He wants to tell her that when it comes right down to it, none of it is really as important as whether or not she remembers how to smile, wants to take the whole pile of post-its and just throw them at her, hoping they'll knock sense into her. He doesn't, of course, but he smiles at the idea.
On the floor, there are a thousand Diet Coke bottles, Advil bottles, bottles of the little blue pills he knows she sometimes takes to stay awake, but only when the country really needs her. But later, they make her throw up, and sometimes he holds back her hair and rubs her neck and doesn't tell anyone, even when he worries. It is the least he can do because sometimes she lets him cry and kisses his tears away.
There is a crumpled McDonald's bag in the front passenger seat, a cheerful Starbucks coffee cup on the dashboard, and three quarters and a dime sitting in the cup holder. Her keys are still in the ignition. Dozens of little blue pills are in the carpet, dropped there by shaking hands.
Her shoulders are naked, and her skirt is hitched up so that her knees are bare, too. Her head is thrown back, her hair falling behind her, her fingers splayed against the dirty pavement.
"Hey," she says as he approaches, not opening her eyes. She judges his distance by the sound of his footfalls, the sound of expensive leather against cheap asphalt. She knows it is him because it's never anyone else. "Got a light?"
"Nice to see you, too, CJ. I'm fine, thanks for asking," he replies, pulling an expensive silver lighter from his pocket. "And yeah, here."
She doesn't look at him as she reaches for the box of cigarettes sitting near her leg. She taps one out, offers the tip to him.
The burst of flame is blinding, but the cool, red glow of the cigarette helps him follow the movements of her hands in the hazy April night. She tilts her head to the side to stretch, and he leans down to kiss the base of her neck.
"Oh, Sam," she says, looking out over the water. "Shouldn't you be off wooing Ainsley?" Underneath her words, she is asking him to make her feel young again, but he doesn't know how.
"Probably," he answers with a shrug, sitting down next to her. "CJ..." he begins warningly.
"I only had two of the pills. I haven't slept in three days." She knows him well enough to know that she needs to start defending herself.
"Why aren't you in bed, then?"
"I get lonely." She gestures with the cigarette, punctuating her statements in all the wrong places. "I was just telling you so that you didn't, you know, offer me a drink or something."
"Yeah, okay. Do you mind?" He gestures towards the box.
He smokes sometimes, on nights like these, with the Potomac opening her mouth to swallow them. So he lights himself one, the smoke filling his belly, and he turns to look at her.
She looks ragged, and her edges are all blurry against the night sky. She is humming low in her throat, and he recognizes the tune as Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, and her eyes are closed again. All sorts of lines creep dangerously from her mouth and her eyes. They look like scoring lines, like she's going to crack.
He touches her hair to reassure himself that she's real. She's shaking from the pills, from the self-disgust, from the lack of sleep. She's shaking hard enough for her hair to rustle even when the breeze does not blow.
"CJ, you could be beautiful." He does not say it to hurt her, but because it is the only truth he knows sometimes.
"Maybe," she answers noncommittally. "I guess. I always look tired on camera." She lives her life through the camera, determines her self-worth by the sound of her voice through the television's speakers. The country must see her only at her best.
She only cries when she is alone in her office, and then, only quietly, into her hands. Usually, one of her press conferences is on television in the background, and usually she believes she was not good enough. Sometimes he is there, and sometimes they have sex there, like that, with her voice in the background, because it is easy and slick and distracting. She will come and he will kiss her mouth, and then she washes her face in the ladies' room, and he goes back to work, and they don't talk for days.
He takes a moment to wonder why they, two of the country's most powerful people and the mouths of the White House, wallow in so much self-pity which is also self-indulgence. He wonders what's wrong with their lives, why they find themselves in each other's thoughts, and hands, and beds, why she finds herself in the pills, and why he feels so helpless.
He wonders why they, brokers in words, often spend hours looking soulfully and silently at one another, palms touching and thighs touching and bellies touching.
He wonders at the fact that sometimes their bodies slide together perfectly, but only in darkness, and he considers the fact that perhaps in the nighttime they are different people.
"Do people ever ask you about me?" she asks.
"Turning vain on me, CJ?" he says, but only because he cannot find the phrases to tell her that he thinks some part of her died that day. That day that the President was shot. The moment she found out that Josh was, too. It didn't matter that everyone was mended to as good as new except for her, because all she could feel was the rend in her heart.
He thinks it's stunning how quickly the world can change.
It was during the firestorm of press briefings and power meetings that she'd started with the pills, just one or two, just to stay on top of things. She was juggling eighty different little multicolored balls, and no one could afford for her to drop a single one.
So, of course, in the process she ended up dropping them all, one at a time, until all that was left was a nice voice for the reporters, a husk of a woman, full of knowledge and very little else, a distant, haunted gaze.
And he had dutifully collected them, because she was his friend and because Josh was his friend. He had handed her all the balls, taught her balance, became her fulcrum.
Sometimes she teeters, but he has become the center of her gravity, and that is almost as dangerous.
She has been silent for a long time. "What I mean to say, CJ, is that they don't have to ask for them to know the answers. Leo wants you to go with him to AA."
"I don't drink that much."
"Yes, you do." He is past deception.
"Okay, so maybe I do." She flicks ashes off against a wave. "I could use one now." Her voice is self-mocking.
He touches her back, tracing the ridges of her spine through her blouse. He worries at the prominence of her clavicle, of her pelvis, worries that she doesn't eat, figures he can't judge her seeing as he can't remember the last time he had a normal meal.
"Your hands are warm tonight," she says.
And then she tosses the cigarette butt into the water, and she turns her eyes towards his, and he's taking a long, feminine drag off his own. Sometimes, she looks at him like that, and he feels beautiful and sometimes he feels nauseous.
There are a thousand things left to be said, not the least of which is how much he needs her, and how he could very possibly love her if he knew that love didn't have to mean loss, and how he couldn't resist pulling her closer and closer to his axis.
"You shouldn't have so much caffeine," he says instead after a pregnant silence. "It's bad for you."
And so she does the only thing she can think of. She throws back her head and laughs, her throat raw, and she tells him to come home with her. They stand as he agrees, and he wraps his arms around her, and somehow they click together in all the right places.
But the darkness is ignorance, and all he can feel is the strange pounding of her heart when he places his lips to her throat.
I think I might love you, he wants to say, but instead he says, "I love that your heart beats," and that is almost enough.
Her mouth is bitter and her cheeks are salty, and he spends the car ride picking up pills from the carpet and dutifully replacing them in their bottle.
It's really the least he can do.
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