Tonight it's the rush. I've got 18 things that have to be done by morning, and I'm not doing any of them. Can't. Just an instant of adrenaline is all it takes to freak me out sometimes, and tonight it's happening again.
It doesn't help that I can't understand this stuff. Donna wrote it out for me, point by point, but I don't get it. Not a word, which is what prompts me, at last, to put my coat on. She told me not to call. That's all I can think, in the moment of panic I'm denying. She told me her roommate was sick and not to call again tonight unless there was a national emergency. So I won't call, I'll just go over there, and knock softly enough not to interrupt the NyQuil-slumber of Donna's roommate.
Because I have to know whether this is an 'o' or an 'a'. I am holding Donna's instructions on running the country in one hand while I attempt to tie my shoelaces with the other. An 'o', I think. Unless that's an 'e' at the end, in which case this has to be an 'a.'
She told me not to call. And I know how to tie my shoes, but I'd probaby better take a cab, because the taste in my mouth is still pretty weird, and I'm still breathing faster than I should be.
I am tired, and I space out in the cab, so I'm disoriented when I arrive at Donna's apartment. I knock softly. Nothing happens, so I try again. At last I hear footsteps. A thud as somebody drops her forehead against the door to look through the peephole. Then the rattle of the doorlock chain, and I'm staring into a very sleepy, somewhat angry face.
Oops. "Gracie. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you. Is, uh, Donna --"
"Joshua!" moans Donna from the other side of the dimly lit living room. She's clutching a blanket around her with one hand, and she approaches, looking reasonably outraged. "Didn't I tell you --" And it dawns on her. "Christ, Josh, I thought 'don't knock' was implied! Gracie, honey, go back to bed." Donna gently takes her roommate's shoulders, turns her in the right direction, and gives her a shove. "Go on." It's a mommy-type voice, something I've only heard from her a few times. Although she uses it with the cats quite often. Gracie stumbles back to her room, and Donna examines me skeptically.
"What do you want, Josh?"
"Is, uh --" I hold out the paper somewhat pathetically. "Is this an 'o' or an 'a'?"
Donna starts to say something, rolls her eyes instead, and adopts her 'Well-I-knew-he-was-crazy-when-I-took-the-job' look. She peers at the page and states exasperatedly, 'It's a 'q'."
I squint at the paper, but the letter in question doesn't look like a 'q'.
"Can I come in?" I say, although I didn't intend to say it. Donna steps back to allow me inside, and gestures roughly at the sofa.
"Sit," she says. "Since I'm wide awake now anyway. Which part don't you understand?"
"Well -- the part after --"
"Here." She sits beside me, on the arm of the sofa, and points to the second paragraph. "It's all laid out right there, Josh. There's really no reason to get me up in the middle of the night when it's all laid out right there."
"It's laid out in your handwriting."
"I can't read your handwriting."
"Yet funny how you always seem to read it with little trouble when you disagree with it."
"How is that different?"
"That's when I'm right and you're wrong. This is when you're right and I'm ... lost."
"And that's not the current state of our office?"
I smile a little at her use of the word 'our', and she sees me, and elbows me for it. "Look right here," she says. "This is a list of every reason Senator Penny will give you to implement school vouchers. And over here --" She flips the paper over and puts it back in my hands -- "is a list of answers you're going to give the Senator when he rattles off said list of reasons. Got it?"
"'School vouchers, despite their purpose, actually do not provide disadvantaged students with suitable ... onions'?" I question.
"That's a whole letter you've discarded there."
I hazard a guess. "Opinions?"
"It's a 't', Fulbright boy --"
"Options! With suitable options!"
"Very good. Now leave." She gives me a push. "I need sleep so I can wake up early enough to call you five times before you acknowledge that you're still alive."
And there it is again, that weird taste in my mouth, but I keep my face blank and Donna shoves me off the sofa.
"Hang on," I say, sitting down again. "Right here. What word could you possibly --"
"It isn't my handwriting that's throwing you, Josh. It's your complete inability to grasp the subject matter."
"Well -- okay. Then explain that."
And she starts to, but I don't listen. My eyes have fallen across her perpetually-muted television.
It's one of those wavy shots, with the flag in the background but the whole scene waves. It's my face, supplemented by the MSNBC logo as it comes back from commercial. I look at Donna, and she looks up slowly from the paper. Her eyes fix on the television, and something changes in her expression.
"What is this?" I ask.
"I left MSNBC on," she hedges, and I glance at the screen and then back at her face.
"What is this they're airing?" I clarify.
She clears her throat and looks uncomfortable, and it occurs to me that maybe she has that funny taste in her mouth, as well. "They did this feature two days later," she says, and without saying it she means after the shooting. "They replay it every now and then. Late night." Her voice is uncertain, and I remember hearing it the same way then. Two days later, I guess. After the shooting.
"It's good for their ratings," she says quietly, as though she has to apologize for something. Then she adds a confession to the end. "It's good for ours."
Decisively, I reach for the remote control and turn up the volume.
"...hall meeting, a successful event that lightens the mood of the White House senior staff," Lester Holt is saying, and they cut to a clip of the President.
"'If I take my jacket off, can I trust you all to read nothing into it other than I've been talking for two hours and it's a little hot under these lights?' (Applause.)
"The President's remarks are successful, and he plans to return to the White House in time to watch a live sporting event on television, an activity that doesn't often fit into the schedule of the President of the United States."
And I'm flashing back to that day, right here in Donna's living room with one of Gracie's damn cats chewing on my feet. Back to President Bartlet's women's softball game. And that night, at the Newseum, the part of that night I haven't been able to remember because of what happened just after it.
They're still talking. I'm not listening till I hear the President's closing remarks. "'Decisions are made by those who show up. Class dismissed.'" And I remember Charlie. Charlie looked at me with this expression of awe and said, "You're right. It doesn't go away." And then Bartlet spoke his closing remarks, and we left the building.
We left the damn building.
"...President Bartlet and his staff as they leave the Newseum in Rosslyn. Moments later, their lives will change forever." Damn dramatics. And why do they have to do this in present tense? As if it's happening right now, as if the crowds are laughing and waving at Bartlet right now, and I'm there and I'm on my feet and Charlie and Zoey don't have this thing in the back of their minds, this thing that makes them hesitate just the tiniest bit to meet my gaze. Donna takes my hand and I'm not sure she realizes she's done it.
The camera angle is horrible. That makes sense; the reporters who were closest were the ones who were following us out of the building. And they were kept back. Back. Out of the line of fire as the first gunshot goes off and I jump, scaring the cat away. I jump when I feel the bullet hit, but then I feel Donna's hand squeezing my fingers, and, my God, they've got Sam and CJ on camera hitting the ground. I hear the screaming I've heard so many nights since that night. I see Leo on his stomach on the pavement.
"...are fired from a near-by window. The Secret Service instantly responds, firing on the suspects. The two gunmen are shot dead. A third accomplice mingles with the crowd and escapes, leaving behind him chaos and near-tragedy."
There is a pause, in which I'm certain I don't breathe. They've got the video clip still running and I can see the President's car leaving the scene. I see Charlie, I think it's Charlie. I see everyone but me.
"You're watcing 'The Bartlet Shooting' on MSNBC. We'll be back in just a moment." And it shows that damn waving flag and it's the President's face on it now.
A credit card commercial comes on. It goes off again and there's a Chrysler on the screen before Donna says urgently, "Josh --"
"You, uh, were explaining --" I don't meet her gaze as I lean into the floor to pick up the paper she's dropped.
"Josh," she repeats.
"It's okay. But I've got to understand this by morning."
I see her start to refuse to go back to explaining, but the words never get formed, and she points at the second paragraph. "Read this," she says.
"I can't," I insist, waving a hand.
"It starts with a 7! How can you have a paragraph that starts with a 7?"
"7-O-H-little boxy thing?"
Now her voice is back to normal. "L-e-a-d," she says, "and then you're missing three letters."
Donna emits something very close to a growl as she thrusts the paper back at me. "Which part of the argument don't you understand?"
"The part where Republicans will say school vouchers are narcissistic."
"That says necessary."
"Type, would you?"
"Do your own research."
We start to argue some more, just for fun, but then the deep voice of the narrator captures our attention once again.
"Rosslyn, VA. 9:38 p.m. Shots have just been fired on the President's staff. Among the injured -- Stephanie Abbott of Lafayette, West Virginia." There's a picture of her on the screen; she's about 25, a little overweight, but it's a candid. "Deputy White House Chief of Staff Joshua Lyman." There we go. Good ol' Classic Press Photo of Josh Lyman. All the networks have it. It's like a horror movie stock shot from 1973. "And President Josiah Bartlet." Picture's black and white and not all that clear. He's the President, I marvel.
I mention it to Donna, because I need words to slow down my breath that's starting to get out of hand again. "Did they have to put up my yearbook photo from like 1800? They couldn't have just snapped a Polaroid or something?"
Donna laughs, which surprises me. But she doesn't answer, and I'm drawn back into 'The Bartlet Shooting'.
The camera is telling me things I didn't know. Like the President, like the fact that he was in the car halfway back to the White House before his Secret Service agent saw the blood. Like me, that it really did take almost 10 minutes for someone to notice me. It felt like decades, but I never knew it really took so long.
Stupid cat comes back and settles serenely on my leg. I push it off. This at last moves Donna from her solidified state; she scoops up the animal and hands it back to me. "Be nice to her," she tells me absently. "It's the least you can do for waking up Gracie."
Show flashes to GW, distance shots of random ambulances and Secret Service. And now they're interviewing a doctor, one of the President's doctors who looks like he's trying not to say something stupid on television. Doctor says the President was brave, and joking around in the emergency room.
Then someone comes on who I guess was my doctor in the ER. He tells the camera about my chest, more about my chest than any camera's ever been told. "The bullet collapsed his lung..." I tune out because I've heard it all before.
But Donna's watching closely. Watching so closely that I turn to watch her. She's biting her lip, and I tilt my head, trying to read her expression. As the feature goes to commercial she notices me staring, and looks at me. And all I get by way of explanation is her shaky breath and the comment, "It was a very long night."
My mind rushes ahead to fill the commercial break with something not directly related to that night. Donna's confidence is looking shaken more than mine right now; for some reason this knowledge gives me back the control of my breath.
"So, this is an 'F', then?" I question, and she laughs gratefully.
"It's a 'P'," she says, and maybe the laugh, then, isn't so grateful.
"And from what school were you trained in the intricacies of the alphabet, Ms. Moss?"
"The school of 'Donna, I'm a Fulbright scholar and you almost finished two years of college, so I need you to explain everything about government in one page, and I need it in five minutes.'"
The woman repeatedly kicks my ass at First-Class Bantering. To say nothing of she has a decent point.
"Must have been some two years," I say, meaning it thoroughly, and more complimentary than she probably takes it.
"Look on the other side," she says. "The second answer. Do you see what I'm --"
"With the religious thing? Yeah, that part I totally get."
"I'm on top of that."
"I'm an expert."
"Explain it to me."
"You mean -- uh, now?"
She smirks, and the show comes back from commercial.
"As President Bartlet and Joshua Lyman enter surgery, the rest of the White House staff rush back to work, attempting to fill the gaps left in their team. Although few are available for direct comment in the hours after the shooting, the press and the nation are given a glimpse of what the staff is going through by way of briefings with White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg.
"'Has there been any discussion of the 25th Amendment?'" That's Danny's voice for sure.
CJ's scratching her neck. She's squinting as if her head hurts, and she looks confused. I sit up, and lean forward a little because I've never seen CJ look like this. "No," she says, and the gaggle erupts into questions again. Danny asks for clarification, and CJ's answer is, "I'm sorry?"
She's shaking her head. The MSNBC anchors are talking over the image now, but CJ is shaking her head and I want to tell Carole to get her out of there, except that this all happened months ago.
"'He'll be out of surgery before m-morning --'"
"What's she doing on her feet?" I say as the TV guys scrutinize her statements for their weakness.
Then CJ's asked why the AP knows more than she does, and when she answers she mops the floor with that reporter.
"That's what," Donna tells me, and I laugh a little.
Next MSNBC displays some vague shots of Toby and Sam outside the hospital. They're both studying the sidewalk. Apparently this is supposed to illustrate the stress the senior staff was going through. If I didn't know them, all I'm looking at is a shaky image of two guys in suits. But I do know them, and it does a damn good job of illustrating what it was trying to. I want to go to them right now, but all this is past.
"... hours of Tuesday morning," Lester Holt continues. "Citizens await news on the condition of their President." I sit forward again when I see the crowd outside the hospital.
"I didn't know," I say quietly, and Donna tells me, "Neither did I."
It's gone to commercial. But I don't pick up the voucher argument.
"Because you were inside," I say.
"Josh, it's not --"
"Because you were in the hospital waiting room all night."
And she nods, silent, and studies the cat that's taken up residence on my knee.
I need to thank her for being there, but I don't know how, so I watch the commercials instead. I don't want to buy stock. Don't need new laundry detergent. I've been down the road and back with health insurance. My long-distance service is crap, but what does it matter, I never call anyone outside D.C. I don't care for Fritos. Not going to watch The Reagan Years. And suddenly we're back from the commercial.
"Tuesday, 3:30 a.m. The third accomplice is arrested outside a diner in rural Virginia."
"Christ," I say when I see him. "What is he, 12?"
"He's 22," Donna tells me absently, as if this has fact been committed to the general knowledge of everyone but me.
We're back to CJ now, who catches her breath every couple of words. "'Josh Lyman is now in his sixth hour of surgery to repair a collapsed lung and a ruptured pulmonary artery." She blinks a little. I'm leaning forward yet again, pissing off the cat, who shifts herself to my other knee and goes back to sleep.
I guess this is the update minute, because we get briefed on Stephanie Abbot and on the President, and, of course, me. Then Lester Holt takes us on to more interesting topics. Like, mistakes.
"Couldn't we do without the scandal?" Donna mutters. MSNBC's all over the unsigned piece of paper that didn't remove the President from power.
"I think he did it on purpose," I say. "I think he didn't want Hoynes to be President for the night because he was afraid he wouldn't be able to chase him out of the Oval." It's a lame joke, but I've got to say something.
Donna rolls her eyes. "You say that scornfully, Mr. I-Got-Shot-Two-Weeks-Ago-And-I-Want-To-Go-To-Work-Now."
"Don't start!" We've turned from the TV momentarily. "I all but had to lock you in your apartment," she accuses.
"You did lock me in my apartment! And you stole my car keys, too!"
"For the good of the country."
"That's grand theft auto!"
"You weren't fit for public office."
"Like I couldn't take a cab after I crawled out through a window."
Donna's eyes stop dancing, so I turn back to the screen to see what it is that's caught her attention. Lester Holt is talking about West Virginia White Pride. About Zoey and Charlie. And it's enough to put that taste back in my mouth.
I catch my breath, and pretend it's because the cat is digging its claws into my leg. I'm digging my nails into the sofa till Donna takes my hand again. Because I never saw the footage -- distant, practically invisible, but I never saw this footage of Zoey and Charlie.
Commercial. Damn commercial, and I keep my grip on Donna's hand and we don't speak. This is something strange, and if we don't talk about it, we'll get through it. It happened months ago, I keep telling myself. It all happened months ago.
"Welcome back to 'The Bartlet Shooting,'" says Lester Holt, and I laugh more bitterly than I intend. "In the final hours of crisis, the nation begins to come to grips with the implications of this near tragedy." I notice again how he never quite calls it a tragedy complete, and then I think back to Zoey and Charlie, to Sam and Toby, to CJ and Leo, to the President, to me. I omit the word 'near.' And I remind myself that it all happened months ago.
"What did you do?" I ask Donna, and she looks at me, confused. "That night," I say, because I know where she was but not what she was doing, and I need the whole picture somehow.
"I waited," she says. "Two days. Until I talked to you and you told me to go back to the White House."
"But what did you --"
"I sat there."
"Oh." I am at a loss for proper words, so I tell her, "I'm certain they needed you back at the White House."
She's shaking her head. "I wasn't any help, Josh. Curtis returned your chair that day, and I --"
I wait, but that sentence never gets finished; Donna's eyes are on the TV screen. CJ is back, and I can see on her face the magnitude of what she's about to say.
"'... would be easy to think that President Bartlet, Joshua Lyman, and Stephanie Abbot were the only people who were victims of a gun crime last night. They weren't.'"
She begins to list other terrible things that happened that night. My night.
"'Mark Davis and Sheila Evans of Philedelphia were killed by a gun last night ...'"
They died. I didn't. And it all happened months ago.
"'... Larkin were killed with a gun last night. They were 12.'"
I close my eyes.
"'...There were 36 homicides last night, 430 sexual assaults, 3411 robberies, 3685 aggravated assaults, all at gunpoint.'" On that night, the night that colored the year that colored the rest of my life.
"'And if anyone thinks those crimes could have been prevented if the victims themselves had been carrying guns --'"
God. Bring it, CJ.
"'-- I would only remind you that the President of the United States was shot last night while surrounded by the best-trained armed guards in the history of the world.'"
She is so good at this.
MSNBC moves on to an interview with Stephanie Abbott. She says she's shocked by the motives of the shooters; she says she's putting her life back together, but I'm not listening. I'm on the verge of calling CJ and telling her how wonderful she is, but it's the middle of the night, and all this happened months ago anyway. So I turn to face Donna. And as it happens, she has already turned to face me.
"So," I say. "School vouchers." And she laughs, because she knows I'm only teasing. And she knows I'm about to say something else, and she expects it.
"Thanks for waiting," I tell her.
"Thanks for staying," she replies.
The cat squirms its way out from between us when Donna hugs me. Then we settle back on the sofa, and I'm breathing normal now, because I know. Because I've seen some of what they did while I was in no shape to be with them. Because I've seen what happened that night, and I've been in the dark for months.
Clips of the President returning to the White House; that's what they've put up on the screen. The President waving to the camera as he gets out of the car. Triumphant return. Survival in the face of ... what? I omit the 'near' again.
I get chills, that's the funny thing. I get chills on the back of my neck when I see President Bartlet waving to the nation. Charlie was right, and I'm going to make it a point to tell him that.
The screen fades to black, and the trademark logo appears --"MSNBC: The Whole Picture." Then a Yahoo.com commercial comes on and Donna and I go back to her school voucher argument. And I really do grasp what she's saying. Funny how I'm not having trouble now reading her handwriting. Funny how things make sense.
06 March 2001