Valentineby Michelle H.
Feedback: Hell yeah! Michelle@propertykey.com
At first, he tells himself, it was the dress. It was simply that night, and the sight of her porcelain doll skin against the shiny black straps. It was her curves and her hair and her smile.
It was just physical.
He sent her flowers to make up for his remark; to somehow get rid of his guilt. Josh teased him for it, as if he'd never given a woman guilty flowers before. As if he was completely unfamiliar with the month of April, the ERA and kung pao chicken.
But it is not April now, and he is Sam, not Josh; and this is Ainsley, not Donna.
And perhaps more important than all of this, it is February. Not April.
He decides to court her, after much thought about her arguments. He decides that for calling herself a Republican, her beliefs are admirable and he can't stop turning over her revolution argument in his mind.
That and she said she liked sex.
Josh finds Sam's usage of the verb 'court' hilarious and puts on a southern accent and talks about Daddy.
Sam stares at him, glaring, until finally he leaves. He hates him today. He hates himself for telling him. He decides that what Donna does best is somehow curb Josh's impulses. He misses Donna and her subtle influence over Josh now that he is no longer aware of his feelings for her. Now that he is with the android. The non-feminist called Amy Gardner.
Amy Gardner would never appreciate the beauty and the intricacy of Ainsley's arguments. Amy would maintain that either you are a feminist or you are sexual, but you can't be both; unless you're her. Amy would say that you can't be feminist and be a waitress; or you can't be feminist and know you are beautiful on the outside.
Amy would say that you can't be feminist and Republican.
He decides that he likes Ainsley's contrary nature. She is adorable, yet ill adored; she is a straight Republican who went to college at the cradle of feminism, Smith College; she is a Republican cog in this Democratic machine.
So he didn't sign the card that went with the flowers. He knows she's forgiven him a thousand times over for his remark. He knows it's tiresome to her now. He knows she'll find him irksome if he apologizes again.
And if there's one thing he's learned, it's that women dislike being irked. It's not conducive to wooing. It counteracts the effects of a good wooing.
Worst of all, he knows she expects him to continue to apologize. He knows that while being irked, she'll put on a sweet face and continue to absolve him.
So instead he decides to do whatever is counterintuitive to him. He sends her flowers and doesn't sign his name. He doesn't even ask the florist to type a message of any sort. He wants to remain an enigma for a little longer. At least until she forgets about him for a while, until she pushes him and his remark about dogs on leashes out of her mind, until he's relegated to the back seat with the ERA and kung pao chicken.
She called her father after the flowers were delivered. She was sure that the mixture of Sweet Mallows and Wake Robins and Trilliums were from him, because she had told him that she had been homesick the week before, and nothing cheered her more than North Carolina wild flowers.
She could hear the smile in his voice when he told her that it wasn't him, and so she assumed, then, falsely, that he was teasing.
The next day a boxed assortment of muffins arrived by courier. It hadn't occurred to her that Valentine's Day was approaching, and when her assistant mentioned that perhaps an admirer was sending her the gifts, she wondered why. Of course at this point she was still certain that it had been her father who had sent the flowers, and it frightened her when she realized it could have been someone else. But the muffins were sealed for freshness and they were delicious, and so she ate them with great relish.
He is puzzled on the eve of the third day. He knows the flowers were a good choice, the ones he'd ordered especially. The cost had been outrageous, and had it been any other woman (other than perhaps his mother) it wouldn't have been worth the expense. But this was Ainsley, the one who he thought maybe could be his equal, the one whose optimism and contrary nature mirrored his own.
He thinks of fun house mirrors, then. He isn't amused.
The muffins were also a success, he's sure. He invented an excuse today to go down to see her, and found her munching thoughtfully on one while paging through a ridiculously thick book. He asked her if it came from the mess.
She raised her eyebrow at him. "The book, Sam," she inquires, amusement behind her eyelashes.
"No, the muffin," he says, coloring slightly, and she smiles.
"No," she says. She tosses the muffin paper in her wastebasket. "Not the mess."
He thinks she looked pleased, and intrigued, and he is glad. He speaks with her about some language he's thinking of including in the latest speech he's writing. She likes it. She compliments him.
Toby doesn't like it quite as much.
Sam feels he writes better when he is smitten. The metaphors he chooses, he feels, are beautiful.
Toby brings it back to him, hours later, covered with red pen. "Fix it," he says, pressing it firmly on the desk. "He sounds like a girl," he says.
Sam tries to argue that maybe the people would appreciate a sensitive, ardent president with soft eyes.
Toby smirks at him. "Soft eyes," he says as he leaves to go back to his office. "Okay, Fabio."
Sam decides he needs to clear his head. He needs to think about something other than the speech for a while. Maybe, he muses, he needs to learn to compartmentalize. There's nothing wrong with speechwriting. There's nothing wrong with attempting to woo Ainsley Hayes, despite what Josh says. But maybe he shouldn't try to do them at the same time. Maybe he should cut his life in half.
So he takes a break and runs to a bookstore. He purchases a collection of Shakespeare's sonnets for day three, and has the clerk wrap it in the most desperate, flowery paper they carry. The clerk smiles and sneaks glances in his direction beneath her eyelashes. He pays extra for the wrapping, and he is thankful, because he wraps gifts much like a five-year-old. He gets tangled up in ribbon and he never cuts enough paper and the tape folds over and gets stuck on itself.
He is clumsy and he knows this. He thinks that is why he so enjoys words so much. There's not much physical coordination required in speaking.
He sets the package gingerly on the seat next to him in the car as he drives back to the White House. He sneaks down to the dark and quiet basement with the package hidden beneath his jacket. He lays it on the corner of her assistant's desk. He picks up one of Ainsley's business cards and sticks in the ribbon, so she knows it's for her.
He pushes her out of his mind then, and in the next hours changes all of his soft, romantic metaphors.
Toby is pleased.
It is the next morning, when her assistant brings in a flowery, perfectly wrapped package, that Ainsley is truly a little scared. All this time she thought the admirer was someone outside of this White House, and that provided her with a little relief.
But whomever this is knows where her office is; not only that, but apparently was down in the basement in the evening, after she left.
She thinks of Joyce and Brookline, the men who tried to bully her when she first started in this White House. The ones who sent her the bouquet of dead flowers. The ones who called her bitch. She is terrified.
It never once strikes her to think of the one who fired Joyce and Brookline after what they did. It never strikes her to think of happy thoughts, that maybe this person isn't deranged or a stalker or some asshole with an agenda that doesn't involve Republicans working in the basement of this White House.
Her assistant is the one who reminds her that the people in this White House, by and large, are good people. Very few of the men scare her here. Granted, Joyce and Brookline had a few friends, but they don't have the sort of access to the White House that this person has.
She is relieved and allows herself to breathe, then, for the first time in what feels like a week. A secret admirer, she thinks, and she rubs her hands on her upper arms with glee. She thinks back to elementary school, when all that was required was a pretty face and long hair.
That was before the boys discovered that her intellect was such that she was bored by idle discussion. She became unattractive to them, then, only because she was beyond them. They enjoyed her well enough after she'd had a few beers, if she was inclined to spend some time in the back seats of their cars, but when it came to actual dating, or God forbid the prom, she became invisible.
Now she feels beautiful; gleeful, in fact. She feels like a princess. She sits, and waits, for her prince to reveal himself.
He hates himself when he tells his best friend that he is smitten.
Josh smirks, but the smirk doesn't reach his eyes, and that's when Sam realizes that he will never understand. He has yet to understand; to fully realize and to be aware of such feelings. Sam thinks about being called a grown man trapped in a teenager's body. He thinks Josh might be a teenager trapped in an aging man's body.
He feels sorry for him, then.
He wanders through the halls of the West Wing, feeling as alienated as he imagines Ainsley to feel. People speak to him, but he feels no real connection to them, because they aren't in love. Even if they are, he thinks, it's nothing like this sudden rush he feels for her. He's high on life, he thinks, and then realizes that he isn't. He wants so much to feel alive. He wants things to sparkle. He wants life to be shiny and glow softly around the edges, like the world seemed to on Christmas mornings when he was a boy.
Instead he feels like he's in a tunnel, deep underground. He hears no sound. He sees no light.
He's falling, he realizes. It's nothing like he thought it would feel. He calls his feelings sympathy pains. He imagines Ainsley's office, like a cave underground. He tries to relate to her this way.
He realizes that sooner or later he'll need to reveal his identity. He'll need to stop hiding behind gifts and break his silence. The thought frightens him, a little. He wonders if maybe this is a game to him. Has it been all along, he wonders. He begins to question his intentions. He loves her, he thinks. Letting her know that should be easy.
And yet he feels shy, all of a sudden. Sam Seaborn, trapped within his own mind, held hostage by his own insecurities.
He is disgusted by the thought, he thinks, and he decides, then, that he'll do it. He'll do it tomorrow. He turns over the page in his daybook.
He shudders, although he's not sure if it's anticipation or fear or a little of both. He stares at the giant red 14 in the center of tomorrow's page.
Her sleep is restless that night. She dreams of nameless, faceless men bringing her absurd gifts, like stocking caps and farm animals. When she arrives at the office she looks at her assistant with wary eyes.
She just shrugs and smiles at her.
When Ainsley presses her further, she assures her that no one has been by. There have been no deliveries. There are no gifts.
A part of her is let down. She realizes that she's come to appreciate the anonymous gifts. More than that, she's come to depend on them. They connect her, in some way, to the people upstairs. They remind her that she isn't a pariah; she can contribute here. She is needed.
More than that, she is admired.
So she feels a certain amount of disappointment in her admirer. This day, Valentine's day, of all days, should be marked with... something, although preferably not livestock or unflattering, yet practical, headwear. She wonders if she's been toyed with.
She is suddenly struck by how ungrateful she feels.
Just the day before she had been wavering between being frightened and gleeful, a perilous balance that felt like walking a tightrope. She tells herself that she appreciates her admirer. Her admirer is a good person, not bent on hurt or shaming her.
Ainsley admires her admirer.
"I'm sorry," his best friend says to him the next morning as they're leaving the Senior Staff meeting. "Did I miss something? Is today tacky disco shirt day?"
Sam, clad in his red satin shirt, walks away from Josh just as he doubles over with laughter. Donna shoots Sam a sympathetic glance, then shoots her boss a glare.
He decides that Josh is comparing his own relationship with the Android to all others. Josh seems to believe, in his own pathetic misguided way, that he's in love. Even worse, he appears to be under the assumption that he's happy.
Josh will mock, in the same way that boys will be boys and the Pope is Catholic. Sam knows this, and he refuses to let the fact that his friend seems perpetually mired in negativity affect him.
Today is red satin shirt day, although according to Josh it could also be titled tacky disco shirt day. Today is the day when he says the words.
He's not troubled that he doesn't seem to know exactly which words to say. The words will come out, and when they're said he'll undoubtedly be so embarrassed he'll quickly wheel about and knock something over or crash into the doorframe.
His lack of physical grace troubles him.
He picked out this morning's shirt last night. He had carefully, gently, ironed a crease out of the back, where it had gotten caught up and wedged between a pair of corduroy trousers and a turtleneck sweater. After finding a suitable tie, he had paced back and forth until two in the morning, toying with words.
He decided that he wouldn't say THE word, the one with the L. Too desperate. Too ardent. Way too soon. He also decided he wouldn't be glib. He wouldn't blow her off and offer to buy her a drink, or split a pizza. He couldn't, now; not after three days of gifts, three days of extravagance.
No, that would be something Josh would do.
But he still couldn't decide on which words to use. His lack of preparedness, paired with an awkward sort of confidence, strikes him as odd. He wonders why he has so much trust in himself.
It's then that he realizes that it's her that he trusts. She is contrary. She is adorable and yet ill-adored. She is the Republican cog in this Democratic machine.
She will understand what he is saying without hearing the words.
She is impatient. She taps her red pen on her desk. She fiddles with her radio. She buttons and unbuttons the top button on her blouse. She taps her foot. She nibbles on her fingernails.
She is afraid. She begins to wonder who her admirer is. She begins to think, again, the negative things she was thinking before. It's not an admirer at all. It's someone who'd like to make a fool of her.
She grows angry with herself. She is Ainsley Hayes. She tells herself she should be above this. She doesn't need a man. She doesn't need anyone. She doesn't need an admirer to feel special, the same way she doesn't let creeps get her down.
And yet she does.
Inside Ainsley Hayes is a little girl, who craves acceptance and loves to be held; loves to have her hair stroked. Loves to hear sweet words, especially the sort that are whispered in her ear by kind men, who aren't drunk and who smell pleasant.
She pushes these thoughts out of her mind and gets back to work.
It is only ten o'clock in the morning.
He stands up and pushes his desk chair backwards, with the backs of his knees. It is noon, now, and there's a good chance that she will be in her office. Preferably alone.
He wonders if the offices in the basement are soundproof. He wouldn't want the sounds of her laughter to echo through the White House.
He sits down, then, because the thought of her laughing is enough to undo him.
But of course, predictably, he misses the chair. He falls straight to the ground, but not before knocking his forehead on the edge of his desk.
He decides he is doomed.
His best friend looks up when he knocks on the doorframe of his office. He begins to laugh hysterically. "You must have told her," he observes. "What did she hit you with, a stapler?"
Sam tells him that he fell and hit his head.
Josh's statement quickly turns to worry. He feels bad for laughing, he says. He wants to know for sure if Sam is okay.
Sam is okay. He tells him he just wanted to know if the mark is noticeable to the untrained eye. He wants to know if he should postpone telling her.
Josh assures him that it is not that noticeable and that he should try and put some ice on it. Maybe he should wait until later in the afternoon to tell her, after some of the redness and the swelling has gone down.
Sam goes back to his office and asks Kathy to get some lunch for him. A tuna sandwich, some potato chips, a soda, and a cup of ice. Oh, and don't forget the paper towels.
Kathy just shakes her head. She is used to Sam. She is used to his clumsiness.
Ainsley is in line at the mess, standing behind Carol, Donna, and Kathy. Kathy mentions that Sam missed his chair and hit his head on his desk. He has a big red mark on his forehead. She needs ice and paper towels. The assistants roll their eyes and giggle. They find Sam's clumsiness amusing.
Ainsley feels bad for him. She doesn't find the clumsiness funny at all. She finds it endearing. She understands.
She gets out of line. She walks up to Sam's office. She stands outside the door.
He doesn't notice her. She watches him work; nibbling on the cap of his pen while he changes the structure of a sentence. He furrows his brow at something, and winces in pain. Ainsley can clearly see the mark on his forehead.
She clears her throat.
He looks up when he hears someone outside his office.
Dear God; it's her.
He stands up. He hadn't expected her. This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen.
"Sam," she says, softly, in that way that stretches his name to two syllables.
"Hi," he says.
"I heard you fell," she says.
"Did you come to make fun of me," he inquires. He looks up at her, shyly, behind his eyelashes.
"No," she says firmly. "I came to see if you were alright," she says. The corners of her mouth turn down a little. "I was worried you had hurt yourself."
"I'm alright," he assures her. "It looks much worse than it feels." He tries to smile.
She smiles back at him.
He feels better already.
"What are you working on," she asks. She takes a few steps into his office.
"A toast. For the dinner on Thursday. It's just an outline, so far," he tells her. "Have a seat," he says.
She smiles at him. She sits down in the seat closer to him. She crosses her legs.
"So what's new with you?" he asks. He knows. He wants to know if she will tell him.
She shrugs. "I don't know. I've been getting gifts. I have an admirer, I think."
Sam tries not to smile too much. "Do you know who it is?"
She shakes her head.
"Do you want to know who it is?"
She smiles. "Do you know who my admirer is?"
"Will you tell me?" she asks, giggling. "I don't want you to betray a confidence. But I really want to know."
He smiles. He looks down at his hands. He looks over her head, to the clock on the wall.
He looks everywhere but at her. This worries her a little. He is obviously trying to decide if he should break his confidence. She's put him in a tough spot. She feels guilty. She stands up, quickly, and kicks the chair back. It falls over and lands with a huge crash on the floor. She feels embarrassed for being so clumsy. She blushes. Then she remembers that this is Sam, the one who fell and hit his head on the edge of his desk. She can see the shape of it in the swollen, angry red mark on his forehead.
Sam looks up at her, then, startled by her sudden movement and by the noise of the chair hitting the floor. She can see the surprise in his eyes, and she smiles. He grins at her and stands up too. He walks around to her side of the desk and picks up the chair, setting it right, patting the seat.
"You can sit down,' he says. "I'll tell you."
She takes a deep breath, then, and feels more relaxed and more nervous at the same time.
He takes a deep breath. He counts to five in his mind. He chews on his bottom lip. His stomach is tied up in knots, clenching around his nervousness.
"It's this guy I know," he says. "He's rather smitten with you."
Her eyes grow wide. "Really?"
He nods gravely. "Yeah."
She smiles. "Do I know him?"
"Yeah," he says.
Her eyes narrow. "'It's not Josh, is it? I thought he was going with Amy Gardner," she says. "I don't think she likes me very much," she says.
"I'm sure she likes you just fine," Sam reassures her.
Her statement is pure horror. "'It IS Josh? What about Amy Gardner? What about Donna?"
He smiles at her then. "It's not Josh," he says.
She looks relieved. "It's not Leo, is it?"
He laughs. "No."
She frowns. "Ed?"
She smiles. "Good, 'cause I can't tell the difference anyway." She chews thoughtfully on her lip. "God, who's left?"
He grins. He hopes he's saying the words with his eyes.
She looks at him. "It's you?"
He looks down, shyly, at his desk. "Yeah," he says, quietly.
She beams. She makes a happy sound. "I'm glad," she says.
His stomach leaps. He swears his heart skips a beat. He smiles at her. "You're glad?"
She nods, still smiling.
He sinks down into his chair, relieved. He feels every muscle in his body relax. He feels the joy course through his body, like blood through his veins. He feels like dancing. His face may break, he's smiling so hard.
Kathy knocks on the doorframe. "Tuna on wheat, potato chips, a soda, and a cup of ice," she says. "And I got you some wash cloths from the ladies locker room in the basement, for the ice."
Sam turns reluctantly from Ainsley. "Thanks," he says absentmindedly. "How much do I owe you?"
"$3.50," she says. "Hey, Ainsley," she says. "Did you come up here to mock Sam?"
Ainsley closes her eyes. She tightens her lips into a thin line. "No," she says, quietly, "I didn?t."
Kathy rolls her eyes. "Why not?" She laughs, pleased with her joke.
When neither one of them join in her laughter, she leaves, pouting.
Ainsley looks at Kathy's retreating back, then looks at her watch. She gasps. "I need to get going," she says. She looks up and Sam swears he can see sadness in her eyes. "I'm sorry," she says.
Sam smiles at her. "It's okay," he says. He swallows. "Can I see you later?"
"Sure," she grins. "Stop by, I should be done around seven. Maybe eight. Is that too early?"
He shakes his head. "No," he says. "That should be fine." He grins at her one last time.
She stands up. She smiles softly at him. "See you later, Sam," she says. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," he tells her. "Happy Valentine's day."
"Happy Valentine's day, Sam." She stops. She looks thoughtful. "That's a pretty shirt, Sam," she says.
He beams at her.
She floats through the rest of her day. She listens to 'I Want You to Want Me' on repeat all afternoon. Her assistant looks at her as though she's lost her mind, and tries to pry about her good mood. Ainsley won't tell her anything. She won?t allow her in, won't give her the satisfaction.
She's gleeful. She's delighted. She feels beautiful.
Finally. She claps her hands together, the way she has since she was a child.
She's wanted him for ages; wanted to know him better, ached for their conversations, the way their remarks play off of one another. She never suspected. Never allowed herself to think about it.
She feels like she's in a dream.
At 7:30, Sam knocks on the doorframe. Her assistant notices him standing there and smiles. She is suddenly in; she suddenly understands.
He walks in to Ainsley's office.
"Dear God," he says. "It's only the greatest song on the face of the earth."
She looks up; beams at him with sleepy eyes. "Hey," she says.
"Hey." He looks at her thoughtfully. "I was thinking we could maybe have some dinner," he says. "But you look exhausted. Maybe you should go home."
She is disappointed. She doesn't want it to end this way. She wants to spend time with him; she feels like the world is ending and time is precious. She decides that these thoughts, however intense, are completely irrational. He's right, she thinks. I am tired. I should go home and put my feet up and watch television until I fall asleep on the couch in my puppy pajamas.
She has an idea.
"Sam," she says sweetly, "come home with me."
He stares at her with sharp eyes. She's tired, he thinks. And despite the fact that she said she liked sex, and despite the fact that I?m smitten with her, this can't be a good idea.
"Okay," he says.
He follows her home, one car after the other. He knows the route, though, knows how to get to her apartment from either the White House or from his townhouse. When he thinks of how he knows such things he is embarrassed, and ashamed, and he feels sorry. But he is gleeful, now, and he is smitten, and he hums 'I Want You to Want Me' as he drives.
Her apartment is sparsely furnished and modern. He is taken aback, a little, by this because she is so feminine, so classic in appearance that he expected something a little more traditional. But he is not disappointed.
Ainsley takes his coat and hangs it in her closet. She kicks off her shoes and pads across the kitchen floor in her stocking feet.
"Make yourself at home," she says. "I'll be right back." She disappears down the hallway. Soon Sam hears a door shut. He paces around the tiny apartment. He takes in the Ansel Adams prints on the walls and the fat tabby cat asleep in the rocking chair. He turns things over in his mind. He wonders if he was crazy to come here. He wonders if Ainsley is too exhausted to know what she's doing.
He hears the door that closed a moment ago open again. Ainsley is coming down the hall towards him, dressed in flannel pajamas with dogs on them and a pair of fuzzy bunny slippers.
She has never been so adorable, he thinks.
She bustles around her kitchen. She puts on a pot of water for tea. She offers him baked goods. He is not surprised by this. She turns on the television. She curls next to him, in a tiny ball, on her sofa.
He puts his arm around her shoulders, cautiously. He doesn't dare breathe.
She snuggles closer to him.
He believes he has never been happier.
Eventually her breathing evens out and she falls asleep against him. It is then that he allows himself to breathe. It is then when he knows he has never been happier.
He closes his eyes.