Title: She Dreamed of Boomerangs
Author: Elliott Silver
Author's Note: I am forever grateful to H.S.M., who read this piece aloud, one word at a time, so I could hear what I had written, and give me the confidence to post it here.
Summary: She dreamed of her words like boomerangs coming back to her because they never had.
"I love you."
It was 5:38 am on September 7 and when she looked over at Simon Donovan, standing tall and handsome with her blue mug with the chip in his hand as he sipped the Starbucks Arabian Mocha Sanini coffee, the words came out.
It was still raining outside, the third day in a row if you didn't count the half a day before that. Since he had come down with a runny nose cold after running five and a quarter frigid miles the first morning it had poured not quite sleet, Simon had slept in - until all of still ungodly 5:05.
CJ had woken with the wiry hairs on his arms tickling her bare stomach and his "we run beside moving cars" fit body wrapped around hers, the way he always did to keep her warm and kiss her awake. And waking that way, even with the alarm blaring and the rain hailing down, life was beautiful and standing in the kitchen a half-hour later, for the first time CJ told him "I love you."
The Secret Service agent looked up slowly from the wet newspaper leaving black smudges on his fingertips as he separated the front pages and gave them to her as he did every morning. His nose was slightly rosy from the cold he still swore he didn't have, his cheeks were shaved shiny-smooth, and he smelled intoxicatingly of blue Lever soap. Slowly he set the blue mug down on the counter; the muted sound made her jump.
Hot flushed embarrassment flooded through her as Simon stared at her in shocked silence and she wasn't sure which of them was more surprised at her words. Rain had never seemed so loud as when she kissed him and ran out without jacket or umbrella or housekeys before he could say a word.
Carol eyed her suspiciously as she tripped into her office a bedraggled mess, having not only run out into the rain without a jacket, but also in her wet walking tour of DC, taken a wrong turn to the office and actually had to ask directions to the White House. Her hair had been soaked curly, her fade-resistant foundation was dripping off her face in peachy droplets, and her new Donna Karan shantung suit hung limp and very possibly ruined. But the good assistant she was, Carol didn't ask questions and simply ran down to the gym and brought CJ two of the skimpy-sized towels as she dribbled disturbingly large puddles all over her office.
"You've got senior staff in ten minutes," Carol informed her as CJ unhooked an extra skirt and shirt from the considerable mound of dry cleaning she'd forgotten to take home again and gratefully took the mascara and hair clip from Carol's outstretched hand as she fled past her to the bathroom.
She shouldn't have said it, CJ immediately thought as she locked herself into the end stall, there was no way she should have said it. She and Simon had only known each other going on four months, to say nothing of their relationship being less than ordinary. Long hours and independent personalities were hard enough on a relationship, to say nothing that she was Press Secretary in a reelection year and he was on the President's elite Secret Service detail. They had been doing just fine with late-night Chinese food, combined laundry, and that soft slow way he kissed her before they made love, but this morning, before most people hit the second snooze on their alarms, she had spoken her thoughts aloud.
"CJ!" Carol called into the bathroom. "Senior Staff!"
"Coming!" she yelled as she stripped down to skin only to realize that white pinstriped shirt she had grabbed was Simon's - in fact, it was the same one he'd been going crazy trying to find for the last three days. Of course she would find it now, CJ thought as she shimmied into her black skirt and tucked Simon's shirt, fitted for his broad shoulders and certainly not her bust, around her.
What if she had spoiled everything, she wondered and her heart seized up. What if she had spoken too soon and ruined everything wonderful about this tangled life they had been living quite contentedly? What if she had broken the fragile peace of their unspoken relationship?
CJ stumbled out of the stall and put her hands on the sink counter. The thought left her breathlessly cold as she raised her eyes and stared at herself in the mirror.
Lidded blue eyes that could alternately be mischievously seductive or hooded in deep sorrow stared back at her. Full lips that spouted crazy things, a jumbled shock of blond-brown hair, and a tall body that even now sometimes still got the best of gangly and not model elegant. She was a woman unsure of her own femininity at times, even in black Vera Wangs when it should have been easy, who had a firecracker temper, a devil-may-care sarcasm, a devious wit and a dangerous attitude, and whose smiles came twice as dearly as her frowns.
What on earth could Simon love about her, she wondered, suddenly wallowing in doubt. But then Carol was calling again and CJ had never been more grateful for political messes of the administration as she threw on two quick coats of mascara to her damp lashes purely for vanity's sake, because nothing short of a Kevin Auçoin make-over was going to help her at that point. She slicked her still-dripping hair into a clip as she hurried through the hallways to Leo's office.
She was a professional playing power politics with tormented little boys; she didn't have time to wonder over something so trivial as if she was loved or not.
Leo glanced up at her from relaying the latest snarls in the Bartlet campaign, and she saw the warning in his crinkled eyes at her lateness and the questions of her voluminous shirt. CJ smiled, a careless smile that she used in the press room that made her teeth hurt and jaw ache, as she sat through the lecture trying to keep the words to report the world's news in her mind, and the words that she had said that morning out.
"Know what you're saying, CJ?" Leo demanded. "CJ?"
"Yes," she answered as they piled out into the hallway, but all she knew was that she had said "I love you."
"You're wearing that for the briefing?" Sam asked as Carol joined them and both of the shorter people struggled to keep up with her long stride. Legs like hers were a curse, she thought, because they were how she always ran away and no one ever caught back up to her - like this morning when it was barely light and she had told Simon Donovan "I love you."
"Why? Does it look bad?" She whirled around on him as she took her sheaf of papers from Carol.
"No," he said quickly. "It looks really good."
At least Sam answered her when she said something, CJ thought, but she also sometimes doubted he told her the truth and not just what she wanted to hear. Sam did it so he didn't hurt her; Simon Donovan refused to compromise like that, to say anything he didn't mean, to sidestep the truth simply because it hurt more. Bundled into his white shirt, she skidded to the briefing room, in a rush to go nowhere as she opened the back door and climbed up behind the podium.
She was so scared - and she didn't scare easily - and she didn't know what to be scared of more, his silence or the words he could have said.
The usual cries of the morning press corps greeted her, voraciously clambering for the stories she barely knew. CJ skimmed through the notes Carol had jotted down for her but she wasn't thinking about the welfare bill up for vote or the president's reaction to the Nicaraguan flood. But the reporters still cried out to her, always wanting the words she didn't have and had to make up. CJ answered their questions gracefully; she was quick on her feet the way most people would never be, and yet she hadn't flung quick improvisations at the man in her kitchen that morning. What she had said to him, she said truly and unlike these people whose business was loud voices and interchangeable words, Simon had been silent.
"CJ, one last question," Katie called up to her and CJ saw where she was headed even before she got the question out.
"It was raining," CJ answered her and then fled into the confines of her office where note piles and file folders and stacks of paper jumbled together on her desk, reminding her brazenly of the stealthy way she had slipped out of the office early the two previous nights to be with Simon, who no matter what he said, had come down with a humdinger of a cold from running in the cold rain. He had been so surprised to see her that night, as if he finally knew how important he was to her, and when he smiled, she knew it was all right.
But everything wasn't now as CJ collapsed into her chair and watched the fickle rain taper off outside her window. She should have learned her lessons from those three painful words years ago.
CJ had told Thad "I love you" during her second to last year at Berkeley as he sat bathed in blue computer glow. He had been madly copying her poli-sci paper on American reaction to the treatment of women in the Middle East that had earned her the highest grade ever in the department and her first contacts with a budding group called Emily's List. "Not now, CJ," he had said distractedly when she called to him from the dorm bed, "I'm trying to pass this class."
CJ had told Toby "I love you" as he pulled on his clothes in a nondescript hotel room two nights and several heated debates after they had first been introduced, soaked in the bitter glory of black-label Kentucky bourbon and sex, and not sure which made her head spin more. "Take these when you wake," he instructed her darkly as he thumped four aspirin down on the table beside her and slammed the door on his way out. When she woke, remembering only that one line of everything she had said and all the arguments she had won that night, she left the aspirin but took the $20 he left lying there too, and hadn't seen him again until four years later when he was married to a pale, little woman named Andi and drinking Scotch.
After that night, she had vowed never to say those words again.
And yet she still told her father "I love you" at the end of every long distance call, but he only paused and grilled her, "Claudia Jean, you're not really going to work for that son-of-a-bitch from New Hampshire, are you?" He had voted for the other man, but he asked her the same question every time she called and loving him kept breaking her heart.
Those three words had never been kind to her.
After lunch, Josh and Sam stumbled in on some sort of mission and she agreed with whatever they were saying until at last they left. She hoped she hadnít agreed to something as mundane as a nuclear attack on Kenya or tryouts for the intra-office basketball team, and after several hours of the usual phone calls, meetings, and general political chaos, she decided that it would have been better if Simon had at least said something, even if it broke her heart. "We've only know each other four months" would have done, or "You're out of your mind, CJ." Even "I don't love you, CJ" would have been better than nothing at all.
She was the Press Secretary, CJ thought as she handled her two o'clock briefing, and she answered every sort of question or comment invented and she did it every day. She would have been prepared for everything Simon could have said to her when she told him "I love you", but he had said nothing at all.
And she had no idea how to respond to that.
All CJ had ever wanted was for her words to come back to her like a boomerang, thrown out and whipping back on the same curving trajectory without losing speed or true course. All she wanted was to have someone repeat that they loved her too. But her words had never come back to her the way she wanted them to.
In her line of work, she was so used to having her words changed, twisted, and stolen that nothing but silence stunned her anymore. The press corps took her words and transformed them into sound bytes and bylines so that she couldn't even recognize what she had said. She had once declared that the president was relieved to be focussing on Haiti - her exact quote was "I think the President is relieved to be concentrating on something that matters" and she had meant it literally. She had meant that he was happy to be back at running the country instead of being dragged down in bureaucratic babble and bullshit, not that he was happy to send American boys into war and off to die, to invade neighboring countries and possibly start a world crisis, to use millions of tax dollars to kill instead of heal, or to shed American blood to distract from the lies he had told, or more accurately, the words he'd never said. But that was how her words got changed; they were twisted like tinfoil, flattened like sheet metal, bent like forged steel and battered into other people's shapes.
She was the Press Secretary to the United States of America. She was strong, she was considered to be intimidatingly smart, and she was always seen as the cool and collected one in the Bartlet administration. She was the most visible player in Washington besides the President, and she was the most powerful woman in the dark city of incomplete sentences and truthless whispers, in competition only with Nancy. And yet this crisis over three words and eight letters had her worked up miles past migraine pitch, past the women of Qumar, past the belief that nothing would ever bring her to her knees, past the idea that she was indeed only human.
She was the only girl in a microcosm of men and she couldn't afford to look weak. She had to do everything twice as well as the boys, and she had to be twice as pretty doing it. At first she had thought a relationship with Simon would make people see her as a typical female in love. What she hadn't expected was the way loving him made her stronger and more confident, how loving him gave her the strength to conquer the world, to make it better every time she stepped up to the podium, because she was making it better for them.
For the rest of the afternoon, she tried not to think that perhaps, knowing how she spun headlines, Simon hadn't believed her when she told him "I love you." It was the truth, but as she sat there as the United States' rumpled Press Secretary, she wondered cynically when had the truth ever helped matters? The truth hadn't helped Jed Bartlet when he admitted to the American public that he had a disease called MS. The truth hadn't helped her when she had been cited for plagiarism at Berkeley and everyone had believed Thad's story. The truth hadn't helped her now.
And even if Simon had responded this blue morning when she told him "I love you," who knew if the words he said would have been true? Men rarely, if ever, told the truth she had learned, especially when the matter of honesty regarded those three little words.
But she had believed Simon Donovan was different; she dreamed of him and she had always dreamed of boomerangs. She didn't want to believe her dreams had been wrong; they were all she had left.
CJ left a little after seven, headache pounding and body protesting too much to hide from what she'd said any longer. She borrowed the spare key to her house from Carol since she'd left hers on the kitchen table when she had spontaneously run out that morning. She opened the door and stood in the still space of the kitchen, but Simon had surprisingly yet to come home.
All she heard was echoes of 5:38 am.
CJ stripped his shirt reluctantly, unwilling to part with the warmth and comfort it had given her all day, and hung it over the closet where Simon kept his suits and would be sure to see it. She ran a long hot shower in compensation. At eight o'clock, she microwaved something from a brightly colored box in her freezer that she didn't remember buying - which inevitably meant Simon had stocked it and that it was inordinately good for her.
And then the anger she had restrained all day broadsided her. All the former traces of embarrassment and regret and confusion boiled out of her. She had told the truth; she had done the right thing. And yet it was Simon who had stood without saying a word when he should have.
Was she so unworth his love, she thought furiously, as the microwave buzzed behind her and even the sound of burning was more welcome than silence. Was there something about her that was inherently unlovable? Did being strong as a woman deny her the comfort of a man's love? Simon Donovan was brave enough to stand in a bullet's path; he should have been at least brave enough to say something when she told him she loved him. Nothing he could have said would have hurt as much as his silence.
If he was that much of a jackass son-of-a-bitch, then he was just like all the other men that had passed through her life and he wasn't worth thinking about. And she decided, she simply wouldn't.
CJ ripped the plastic film off the microwaved food, sending imitation butter sauce splashing across her sink and the clean blue mug, propped scrubbed and upside down in the drainboard where Simon retrieved it every morning when he came down the stairs from his shower. She took the sorry excuse for a meal and headed into the living room, almost dropping it as the plastic tray burned her fingers on her way there. Cursing a blue streak that would have made him lift an eyebrow laconically, CJ clicked the TV and CNN broadcasting filled the screen as she picked at overly-green broccoli spears and what was supposed to be some sort of meat. But all that was said on the chewed up and spat out airwaves was her coverage of the president's reelection campaign and except when they spliced her briefings, the way they used the news sounded more like lies than the truth. Disgusted, CJ turned the TV off and threw the uneaten meal into the trash.
It was a strange fate that so much fear, doubt, anger, and despair should come from so small a thing as three words.
By nine o'clock, Simon had yet to return; by 9:16, as the anger faded and worry crept in, CJ had started pacing. She couldn't not think about him. She didn't care if he had said nothing instead of something, if he loved her or not: she just wanted him to come home. His shift had been over hours ago and if he was going to be late, he, being detail-oriented to a fault, always called her or left a note. She checked her voice mail twice, made sure the battery was charged on her cell, and scanned through her email. By 9:57 she stopped arguing with herself and picked up the phone. No, there had been nothing unusual with the President, Charlie informed her calmly, nothing unusual with his protection detail.
CJ hung up the phone and sat back down on the couch where they had made love in the blush of evenings, but her nose started running just before the eleven o'clock news came on and she yanked tissues from the box she had bought for Simon. She began shivering a few minutes later and went upstairs for the West Point sweatshirt he always left over the chair in her bedroom because she wore it too often for him to try claiming as his anymore. The clock beside the bed blinked 11:24 in decadent scarlet numbers and she wondered if, after her words, he wasn't planning on coming back.
The thought shook her to the core.
What had she done, she wondered in despair.
And before she made it down all the stairs, CJ Cregg had started crying. She sat down on the second to last one, put her head in her hands, and let the tears stream down her hot face.
"I love you" she had told him because she wanted to believe that there would be a time and a person who wouldn't twist her words around and change them. "I love you" she had told him because she thought he was that person.
"I love you" she had told him because she did.
She had said so much in her life and she had made a job of saying things, but of all the times she had said things she shouldn't have and wished she could take them back, this wasn't one of them. As much as it hurt and as much as she cried - and she never cried - she loved Simon Donovan and she couldn't wish that she hadn't told him.
But CJ realized that saying "I love you" and meaning it was more than just hoping to hear her words come back to her. Saying "I love you" was trusting him to come home, however and whenever he could, from a job that routinely put his life in danger and where he carried a gun that knocked her on her ass. Saying "I love you" was accepting, as much as she hated it, that his job could one day take him from her. Saying "I love you" was having faith in what he said, and more importantly, didn't say. Saying "I love you" was full of waiting, hurt, and gnawing, bone-jarring, heart-breaking uncertainty. Saying "I love you" was still believing in truth and hope.
Saying "I love you" was so much more than just words.
And suddenly CJ realized, after a lifetime of saying things, that sometimes silence said more than words. Each look, each touch, each little thing like brewing the $16.95 a pound Sanini coffee he hated, simple black Juan Valdez man that he was, but knew she liked and stocking her freezer and kissing her awake said "I love you" as truly as speaking aloud. It was in everything he did.
Simon Donovan had been waiting for her to open her eyes.
When she finally did, he was standing right in front of her and she saw he had been waiting four months. His patience was no less astounding than his certainty.
And then slowly, mindful of the tendons he'd injured running track, grey hair and callused hands, a big gun and a bigger heart, Simon Donovan did what he had been waiting four months to do - he bent down on one knee in front of her.
In his fingers, he held a glistening silver ring and as she reached out with trembling hands, she wasn't altogether certain it wasn't a dream because no one could be as loving as this man, as noble and honest and brave and giving her every ounce of his heart. She forgot about the eighteen hours of shocked embarrassment, deep remorse, chilling self-doubt, brash fear, livid anger, and utter hopelessness that had plagued her all day. As she held the silver ring he offered her in her hands, she remembered only the calm acceptance of saying "I love you" to Simon Donovan and meaning it. Through her blurring eyes, CJ read the inscription on the band. Her words were engraved there in strong, bold jeweler's script - and the date she had finally said them.
Simon Donovan knew how much it had taken her to say them, how cruel those words had been to her in the past, and in the end, how much and how many hours it would take her to be certain.
He had marked it with something as certain and sure of his own.
And as she looked in his eyes, CJ knew the words weren't hers, weren't just an echo, weren't just what she wanted to hear. They were his words, because words that powerful couldn't simply be repeated or have the same boomerang cadence. And as he spoke them, CJ knew those three words were their words, were shared between them, and were more beautiful than her dreams.
"I love you," Simon Donovan told her.
I would very much love to know what you thought: email@example.com
Return to Elliott Silver's West Wing Page
Return to Elliott Silver's Fiction Niche