"We can't say 'sexual preference'." Matt set his beer bottle down on the table, and it clinked against the empty one next to it. Cigarette smoke from the next table floated over to our booth, mixing with the pervasive smell of pizza grease.
"What?" I looked up from the thick stack of notes in front of me. The guy behind the bar turned up the music, singing unintelligibly along with that song that talked more about *talking* about sex than it actually did about the act itself. I glanced around at the narrow corridor of a restaurant. The crowd was definitely denser than it had been when we'd arrived. Probably hungrier, too. My stomach felt uncomfortably empty, and I could feel the beer sloshing around inside of it.
Matt shook his head. "'Veterans shall not be denied dependent benefits on the basis of race, sex, creed, sexual preference, or religion.' We can't say that. We're going to have a hard enough time passing this bill without getting rid of the whole section. If we phrase it like that, we'll lose Kendall, Markovitch, and probably Schmidt."
I lifted my notes and flipped open the folder underneath
them. "CRS wanted that in there."
"Well, it's not going to be up to CRS to go back to Sharon Thompson and tell her we can kiss three prominent Republican backers goodbye if we don't get rid of it. That's my job." He leaned toward me, placing an elbow on the table. "We can leave out just that one sentence. The rest of the section implies it, anyway. Not to mention the Constitution."
"Are we gonna comb through every inch of this bill and delete anything that might offend some fascist from Wyoming? Because there's this bit at the beginning of section two--"
"Josh, we can't say 'sexual preference', okay?" His tone was patient, but firm, and I knew I wasn't going to win this one. He crumpled the edge of his napkin into the palm of his hand. "Look, I know you're worried about the timing, so just trust me on this. Thompson's going to take one look at this clause as it stands and send me right back to you. It'll cost us at least one more day."
"Fine." I sighed, grabbing one of the felt-tip pens in the middle of the table and obliterating the sentence with a thin black line. "Happy?" I picked up my bottle of beer and took another sip. "That certainly makes things easier, anyway. We'll probably only need to meet one more time."
"Good, 'cause I'm getting pretty sick of eating pizza every night." Matt leaned into the aisle, his eyes searching the room. "Speaking of which -- is it just me, or has that waiter been gone a long time?"
I reached under my jacket for the calendar in my breast pocket and opened it to the upcoming week. This Wednesday would be September fourth. Sam's birthday. I could call him. "We've only got three days before the end of the recess," I said, laying the calendar flat against the wooden tabletop and tracing the upcoming week with a finger.
"I know." Matt rubbed his eyes. "Exactly how fixated is Brennan on having this be the first thing on the agenda after Labor Day?"
"Pretty fixated." Sam would be turning
twenty-seven, I calculated. That was older than I'd been
when we'd met.
There had been a picture of him in the New York Times after he'd won
award back during his second year at Duke. I'd cut out the article
and stuffed it into the upper
right hand drawer of my desk at home,
alongside a copy of my birth certificate and a couple of
letters from my
parents. He'd already looked a lot less like a kid in that picture. The
with a more mature face.
Matt leaned into the aisle again. The knot of his tie cut into his neck, and I tugged at my own collar, loosening the top button. This guy could have been an instructor at a military academy or something, all straitlaced and upright. He really didn't look gay.
"How about Monday?" I suggested. "No more pizza. We'll pick up Chinese."
"I can't." He shook his head. "Everybody else from the D.C. office is supposed to be back in town by then, and I've got a meeting that'll run at least until eight or nine at night." A high-pitched beeping sound emerged from the direction of Matt's hip, and he looked down.
The beeping continued. "If that's what we have to do, that's what we have to do." He reached down and slapped his pager on the table, scowling at it. He flicked it off, and it fell silent. He pushed it toward the metal napkin holder against the wall. "Anyway, yeah, that would be fine."
I glanced at the pager and then back up at Matt. "Aren't you gonna call in?"
"I know who it was," he said. I raised an eyebrow. "It's this reporter," he explained. "He's called three times since last night." He waved a dismissive hand in the air. "Don't worry, it's nothing important."
I nodded. The Post had done a piece on Matt right before the election, and although they hadn't spelled everything out, they hadn't exactly gone out of their way to hide the fact that he was gay. Everybody in Washington knew, really. He probably had guys from the press pestering him all the time. "Reporters are like remoras," I offered.
"You know, those fish that latch onto sharks and won't let go?" I held out my hands, cupping my fingers around an imaginary form in the air. "All they're looking for is free transportation and the crumbs the shark throws 'em after it's done eating." Matt grimaced, and I shrugged. "I take it this isn't about the bill, then?" I lifted my beer bottle to my mouth.
Matt laughed. "Oh, I assure you, this guy's interest in me is purely personal."
The beer hit my throat as I inhaled, and I choked it back. "Ah."
"He interviewed me last fall, right before the election. To be honest, I kind of like him, too, it's just ... you know. It's a bad idea all around, but he won't take no for an answer. I guess he thinks now that I'm not running for Congress, it shouldn't be some big thing."
I blinked. It was certainly becoming clear why everybody in the city knew Matt Skinner was gay. "Okay."
"That's the last thing in the world I'd need, you know? A journalist boyfriend." He shook his head.
I shrugged. "What's standing in your way?"
"What do you mean?"
"What's stopping you from going out with this guy?"
"I want to run again next year, that's what's stopping me." He shot me an incredulous look. "What, you think I shouldn't worry about how it's going to look if I start dating some guy from the Chicago Tribune?"
I drew in a breath. On some level, I had to admire his chutzpah, but in this town that only got you so far. I closed my mouth again.
"What?" he prompted.
"I just--" I began, choosing my words carefully. "I think whether or not you date a reporter is, like, hardly your biggest problem here if you're gonna run for Congress."
"You don't think I can win," he said, matter-of-factly.
I dropped my eyes. His hands were folded against the table, but his thumbs were twitching. I didn't answer.
"You're saying you don't think I can win, anyway, so why compound the misery. Am I right?"
"I'm saying Kermit the Frog has a better chance of getting elected to Congress than you do," I answered.
He raised an eyebrow. "Jim Henson died last May."
"Exactly." He stared at me, and I stared back. He sat up straighter, brushing his knee against mine under the table, and I jerked my leg away. "Matt, you lost by almost thirty points. Paul Crittenden whipped your ass, thoroughly trounced you. Now, while I'd love to attribute that to the impeccable taste of the American public, I don't think it had a whole lot to do with, say, your stance on campaign finance reform."
"Really? What was it about, then?" He leaned against the back of his seat.
I wrapped a hand around my beer bottle. God, I hated it when he played dumb. "Matt--"
"You think I lost because I'm a homosexual."
"Do you know how many openly gay men have been elected to Congress as non-incumbents in the history of this country?" I asked, propping my elbows on the table and gesturing with both hands in the air.
"I have absolutely no idea, Josh." I could almost feel the ice in his words as they hit my ears. "Why don't you enlighten me."
"None. Do you know how many have been outed while in office?" I waited, but he didn't answer. "Four. How many of those guys still have careers in mainstream politics? And how many of the ones who do are Republicans?"
"I hardly think--"
"Seven guys -- from everywhere from New York to California -- have run for either the House or the Senate as non-incumbents without trying to hide the fact that they were gay. Aside from you, all of them have been Democrats. All of them have lost. There weren't even any gay Congressional *staffers* to speak of until the mid-eighties. Even now there are guys being let go under mysterious circumstances, especially in your party. What about--" I snapped my fingers, trying to remember the guy's name. "Jim. Jim Liedel? Worked for Richardson."
"What, you're not going to try to claim anybody who'd work for Richardson deserves what he gets?" he mocked. His nostrils were flaring.
"Take a look around you, okay? You may be only slightly to the left of Attila the Hun, but you're a not an idiot, and people know it. But you're not cutting it as a consultant. You're just some gay guy, working on all these gay bills--"
"This is a 'gay bill'?" His eyes were wide with mock surprise.
I slammed the palms of my hands down on the table. "Oh, come on!"
"You know, it's going to be a pretty shocking piece of news for the DOD that the American Veterans' Health Protection Act is a gay bill. Are you going to be the one to break it to them?"
"Matt, we've spent the past three days ironing out the language on the clause about refusal of dependent benefits for terminal illnesses. Don't act like you don't--"
"That isn't about--"
"It's about AIDS!"
"Of course it's about AIDS. That doesn't mean it has anything at all to do with being homosexual." He leaned toward me, his eyes flashing, and I felt my face freeze. "You want to know why a conservative Republican Congresswoman like Sharon Thompson is being so adamant about this one little clause? An Army corporal in her district had a hemophiliac kid who got a bad blood transfusion eight years ago. The health companies told the parents to screw themselves when the kid got sick. He died in June. This isn't a gay disease, Josh, and this isn't a gay bill."
He leaned back. The steady beat of the music and the low rumble from the crowd invaded the silence that followed. I dropped my eyes, feeling my cheeks grow warm. "I just meant ... that's how they think of it. How people look at it."
"That's all I was saying." My eyes locked on his.
"Yeah." He maintained my gaze, pushing the two empty beer bottles to the side.
I shifted in my seat. "I just think-- I mean, if you knew you were gonna run for Congress, you might have, like, thought about this stuff sooner. I mean, I don't *personally* care if you buy a billboard off Rock Creek Parkway proclaiming your undying love for some guy from the Chicago Sun-Times--"
"--or anybody else, for that matter. I just think that's something you might have thought about, you know? Before being so ..." I shrugged.
"Well, I was gonna say 'blatant', but that works, too." He lifted his chin, and the annoyance left his eyes. He raised an eyebrow. "What?" I asked.
Matt took a sip of his beer, not breaking eye contact. "I was just wondering where the point was in this conversation when we stopped talking about me."
"What?" I felt my chest clench. "No. Wait, are you saying ..." My tongue felt heavy in my mouth. I threw my arms out to my sides. "No way!"
"Whatever you say, man." He smirked.
This guy was clearly not in full command of his mental faculties. "Oh, come ..." I shook my head, scoffing, and looked down at the table. I jerked my head up to look him squarely in the eyes. "Tell me, what is it that makes gay guys want to believe every other guy on the face of the planet is gay, too?"
He grinned at me. Both of my hands clenched into fists.
"Is it about trying to level the playing field or something?" I continued. "Is it some sort of self-inflicted mind game that gives people hope that they might be able to sleep with the guys they're--"
He snorted. "Don't flatter yourself."
"Well, you can hardly blame me for wondering where the hell this is coming from!"
"It's just that for a straight guy, you know an awful lot about the relative success rates of various homosexual players in Washington."
I clenched my teeth. "I know an awful lot about a lot of things."
"Okay," he said. He nodded slowly, looking me up and down.
"What?" I couldn't keep the defensiveness out of my voice.
"I'm just trying to remember the last time you had a girlfriend."
I banged my fist against the table. The glass beer bottles rattled against it. "God, are you delusional!"
"You've been single an awfully long time, come to think of it."
"I was sleeping with Eve Wagner until April, okay?" I yelled, and a guy in a dark blue sweatshirt at the next table shot me a look of disapproval over his right shoulder. Matt didn't respond, but he was still smirking, and I glared at him. "First you think you've actually got a shot at winning a Congressional election, and now you think I'm *gay*? You need some serious help."
"I'm going to win, Josh," Matt said, pursing his lips like an English aristocrat. "Maybe not in '92, but someday I'm going to win."
"What's your campaign slogan gonna be? 'At least one in ten of you will vote for me'?"
"Are you saying you're planning on crossing party lines?" he said sweetly. "Why, Josh, I didn't know you cared."
I waved my hands in the air in front of me. My heart was pounding. "No, no, wait, wait. 'Matt Skinner: For Fiscal Responsibility and Redecorating Congress.'"
His eyes narrowed into slits, and the muscles in his face tightened. He looked like a rat. "You know, this bill doesn't need Brennan as a co-sponsor quite this badly." His cheeks were bright red, and he was struggling to keep his voice level.
I reached under the table and grabbed my backpack. "I was just thinking the same thing." I clenched a fist around the stack of folders and shoved them inside. My leg banged into the table as I pushed myself to my feet and scrambled out of the booth, and the searing pain of a new bruise spread all the way across my thigh. I swung my backpack over one shoulder, barely managing not to wince.
Squeezing past a crowd of kids in t-shirts by the bar, I nearly collided with our waiter as he emerged from the kitchen. The guy was tall, with dark hair and just a hint of a five-o'-clock shadow. He looked like Sam. My stomach groaned as I caught a whiff of the pizza he was struggling not to drop. "Sorry," I mumbled, making a beeline for the exit.
I pushed open the double doors. It was still warm, but the air was so heavy with humidity that a light drizzle had already fully coated the sidewalk. The bruise on my thigh ached as I stumbled to the curb, and I clenched my teeth as a jolt of realization shot through me.
I'd had two beers on an empty stomach. There was no way I was going to be able to drive home.
I kicked the base of the streetlight. God, what an asshole Matt was.
I sifted through the maze of cars on the circle, and my eye caught on a yellow cab. "Hey!" I yelled, waving, but it drove past. I looked down at myself. My suit looked like I'd been wearing it for three days straight. I pulled on the strap of my backpack and ran my fingers through my hair with my free hand. It was already damp.
I was going to have to break this to Brennan. My stomach turned over. I'd call him as soon as I got back to my apartment, maybe tell him I'd had a difference of opinion with Sharon Thompson's guy, and we'd need to assign someone else to work on this bill. Pat could do it, or even Greg. I stepped off the curb into the gutter, my eyes still searching the road for another cab. Brennan wasn't the sort of guy who'd let something like this go, though. He'd want to know what had gone wrong. The door of a dance club on the corner swung open, and a loud dance beat poured out onto the sidewalk, followed by four guys in tight jeans.
"Aren't you a little bit worried about what the driver's going to assume about you, picking you up at the corner of Massachussetts Avenue and Dupont Circle?" a voice sneered from behind me.
I spun around. Matt was standing about three feet from me, his arms folded and a black vinyl duffel bag slung over his shoulder. I felt myself glaring at him, and I turned back around, taking another step into the street. A car drove past not six inches from my feet, launching an entire puddle onto my legs from the knees down.
"Damn it!" I yelled, stepping backward onto the curb. I crouched down, setting my backpack on the wet ground, and rubbed at my pants with both hands. I turned them over. My fingers were streaked with mud.
I didn't look up, but I knew Matt was watching. "You're looking a little damp, there," he said.
I squeezed my right pant leg. It dripped onto the sidewalk, and I scowled down at it. "Thanks for pointing that out, because I sure hadn't noticed I just had several *gallons* of water thrown at me."
A zipper slid open, and I looked up. Matt reached into his bag and pulled out a towel. I stared at it, but didn't move. "It's clean," he said, holding out his arm. "What, you think I had a free hour today to go to the gym?"
Not quite daring to look at him, I grabbed the towel and wiped off my suit, covering the light blue terrycloth with dark gashes of brown. I pulled up my socks, shaking my feet to let them slide over my heels inside my shoes. I looked up at Matt. "Ah," I started, but didn't know what to say. I stood, handing the towel back to him. The bruise on my thigh throbbed. "Thanks."
He nodded, tucking the towel back into his bag. An empty cab tore through the puddle with a loud splash, but I didn't try to wave it down. Our eyes met and bounced off each other, and we both turned away. A guy on the other side of the circle opened up a dark green umbrella and huddled beneath it.
"Redecorating Congress," he said. It wasn't a question.
I winced. Yeah, that had been too far. "I thought it had a nice ring to it," I answered, but my voice cracked on the last syllable.
"If it's all the same to you, I think I won't be hiring you as my campaign manager."
"Hey, if I were desperate enough to manage a Republican campaign, you'd win hands down." I looked at him.
His eyes crinkled around the edges. "I would, huh?"
Landslide," I insisted. We stared at each other. His mouth turned up at one corner, and I felt myself begin to smile. "Listen, about--"
"You know, I shouldn't've--"
He took a step back, and my smile turned into a laugh. Our eyes met again, and this time we were both grinning.
"You know, since the only thing harder than ironing out the kinks in a bipartisan bill is hailing a cab on Dupont Circle in the rain, maybe you might want to spare yourself the trouble and give it another shot?" He tilted his head back toward the restaurant.
I shrugged. "At least we know the pizza will be ready by now." I watched his shoulders relax, and I inhaled a long breath, flooding my own lungs with relief.
As we walked through the double doors that led back into the restaurant, I reached behind Matt, hesitating for only a split second before putting my hand on his back to guide him inside. He shot me a look of surprise. I started to move my hand away, but held it firmly in place.
"You know, I think you should think about giving that reporter guy a chance," I said, raising an eyebrow, and Matt smiled.
I scanned the room for the waiter who looked like Sam as we squeezed past a cheering table of college students on the way to our booth. My mind flashed back to the picture of him I'd seen in the paper. A picture that was a good four years old by now.
On Wednesday, he'd be turning twenty-seven.
I ran a hand through my hair, shaking it lightly,
and tiny drops of water landed on the worn
brown carpet. I knew I
wouldn't really call.