Everything he almost had

It's December, and Bartlet has been out of the White House for almost a year. There's a Republican there now, because after eight years of Bartlet America feels like it can't trust Democrats anymore. Which is funny, because Sam feels like he can't trust America.

He's living in New York again, in a West End Avenue brownstone that was featured in Architectural Digest a month after he moved in. He's a partner at Brice Madden McCall and has a corner office with glass walls. His executive assistant brings him coffee, dresses better than he does, and doesn't like him enough to make fun of him.

He is supposed to want this, but after eight years in the White House, nothing excites him anymore. He hates his job, New Yorkers annoy him, and he's tired of drinking bottled water. Josh Lyman is maybe the one thing that can still make him nervous, because when Sam invites him over for dinner, his hands are shaking when he hangs up the phone.

Sam has never felt at home in his apartment. The firm found it for him and some lady in black pants and a red tank top decorated it for him. The most he did was unpack his clothes, put sheets on the bed, hang his few black and white photographs. He thinks the place looks like a long-distance commercial, or a movie about New York. The wooden floors are cold and blond and he has never once sat in the leather armchair next to the bookcase.

He likes the kitchen though, with its matching cobalt blue appliances and its row of bar stools. He's taught himself how to cook and after work he'll sit and watch CNN on the 13 inch tv while he eats his dinner. He goes to the gym twice a week and tries not to think about how he's slowly falling into every stereotype of the urban gay male. But there's a case of mineral water in the pantry. There's a pantry.

The first floor of the brownstone has a high ceiling and a complex track-lighting system to go with it. The woman with the red tank top had explained it to him, handing him a remote and pointing and using phrases like "factor of illumination" as she grabbed his hand and pushed at a series of buttons. The lights came on and the room lit up like an art gallery or a prison break, spotlights randomly highlighting portions of the wall and one guilty corner of the couch.

He's never bothered to adjust the lamps, and now, as he goes downstairs to answer the door, he passes through one of the spotlights and it triggers a sense memory of the West Wing. For a moment he remembers those dim, historic hallways and misses that part of his life so much that he wants to cry. He might, but Josh is there, hopping up and down on the front step, looking rumpled and brilliant, like he'd just rolled out of bed and put on whatever he'd picked up off the floor.

Josh gives another hop and claps his hands together. "Hey!"

"Hi," Sam says.

Josh laughs at him. "Yeah, Sam? You wanna let me in? 'Cause it's a little cold out here."

"Oh, sure, sorry!" Sam says, over-apologizing and stepping out of the way so that Josh can knock the snow off his shoes and come inside.

In the entryway, Josh shivers and rubs his ears. "Why is it so cold here? It was never this cold in DC."

"Yes it was," Sam says, taking Josh's coat and hanging it by the door. "You really should wear a hat."

"A hat! I don't need a hat. When you're going up against the forces of nature you can't show any weaknesses, you can't wear a -- hey, what smells so good?"

Sam makes sure the door is locked, then follows Josh upstairs. Josh has never grown up. He eats street vendor hot dogs for breakfast, has a tendency to get distracted mid-sentence, and can never remember where he put his glasses. And that's not even half of why Sam finds it hard to breathe when he's around him.

Josh is in the kitchen, standing over the stove with his hands on his hips. "You cooked," he says, looking stunned.

"Yeah, it's nothing, I just, you know, pasta."

"I don't know pasta. I mean, we've met, but it wasn't what you'd call a lasting relationship." Josh is already moving on to the bookcase, reading the titles with his head tilted sideways, just like he does every time he comes over, squinting because he doesn't have his glasses.

"It was a fling," Josh says in that tone of voice that means he's already forgotten what he's talking about.

Sam gets out the wine.

The night Toby quit, Sam went out and got drunk.

He sat on his barstool, staring into his watery scotch and composing speeches in his head. No one was paying any attention to him. They had no idea what he was about to become.

Josh showed up half an hour later and ordered a beer but didn't drink it, saying Donna had threatened to break both his arms if he came into work with a hangover the next day.

It was nearly midnight and they sat together and didn't talk, two politicians in a bar, a bad joke without a punchline. Josh ate peanuts and didn't drink and Sam didn't do anything except drink because Toby was leaving and no one had told him not to.

Because they expected him to, he took over Toby's job. Moved into his office because it was bigger, had the couch and coffee table and armchair. He sat at Toby's desk, talked on Toby's phone, stared out Toby's window, let the job turn him into Toby. He could see it all, the nation's apathy, the enemy's stupidity, the crippling greed and self-interest of Washington. It made him want to scream. He did sometimes, and he knew he sounded exactly like Toby. America the Beautiful had turned him sour.

His naivete, his ideals, his trust that if they told the people what was right, the people would follow, everything that had made him different from Toby, everything that had made Toby roll his eyes in disgust, it was all gone, and Sam was left with the feeling that they were slowly sinking, all of them, and Washington was the rock tied to their leg.

He was drowning, and Bartlet had just won his second term in office.

The first State of the Union address he wrote without Toby felt like a letter to someone who would never see it. By the fifth, it felt like a well-rehearsed eulogy for someone that wouldn't quite die. Every January, Sam stood up and argued for change, and every January, Bartlet stood up and said the same thing he'd said the year before.

In the last year of Bartlet's term, there were days Sam couldn't concentrate on anything but the sound his rubber ball made as he bounced it off the walls of his office. There were entire weeks when he didn't hear a single thing the President said. They tried talking to him, all saying his name in that same voice. "Sam," they said. "Sam."

And he could have blamed Toby because he was the one that left him this legacy of lies and fear, but Toby was smart enough to get out and sometimes Sam thinks that he should have followed.

Josh is staring at him. The pasta water's boiling over and Sam can't remember the last thing he'd said.



"You just like, totally spaced out there pal."

"It's nothing," Sam says, suddenly annoyed with Josh and his adolescent speech patterns. The man is forty-seven years old and talks like he gets lost in his own head. There was a time when Sam felt clumsy and inadequate next to him.

Josh is a political resources consultant, has three office numbers and two cell phones and there are still times when no one can find him. For the moment he's standing in Sam's kitchen. His hair is longer in the back now because he's overcompensating for its retreat in the front, and if he were anyone else Sam would feel embarrassed for him. But this is Josh, who probably just thinks he forgot to get a haircut, who doesn't realize when he's overcompensating, who never understands he is until it's too late.

Sam is sure Josh doesn't understand why Sam invites him over like this. They'll have an uncomfortable dinner where they talk about politics and CJ's latest e-mail and then Josh will leave and Sam won't call him again for a month or two because this is nothing but an old failing friendship and it's getting easier to remember that.