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Me and Victor Laslo

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Here's something I just learned: Even when you're lying on a four-poster bed in the middle of the most romantic setting you could conjure up in your best erotic fantasy, even when you've gorged yourself on gourmet foods and drunk half a bottle of the finest wine in a pretty spectacular wine cellar, even after two hours of making love to an attractive and honorable man -- even after all that, it is possible to suffer from insomnia.

Jack, I should point out, has no such problem. He's an uncomplicated sort of man, Jack is. He ate, he drank, he came, and now he sleeps like a log.

This is just me, wide awake at 4 a.m., wondering why the big romantic Christmas getaway isn't living up to expectations.

It is possible that I'm drunk. Well, not so much drunk as slightly tipsy, but there's definitely an alcohol-related lowering of my defenses here. The little voice inside my head? The one that's spent the last month telling me that Jack is an honest, intelligent, good-looking man who exhibits occasional flashes of wit and humor? It's being drowned out by that other little voice -- the voice that insists Jack is bland, boring and will never understand my civilian view of the world any more than I'll comprehend his military perspective.

The damn voice keeps asking me why the hell I got on that stupid helicopter to begin with. Why am I spending Christmas with this man I clearly do not love?

It's very guilt-inducing, that voice.

I refuse to take all of the blame, however. Part of the problem lies with Jack. I can't figure him out. I look at him, lying there asleep in his sensible pajamas, and I don't get him.

Take this vacation, for example. The whole thing sort of spun out of control before I realized what was happening. One minute he's talking about how he hasn't spent the holidays on dry land in years, and I'm inviting him over to my place for Christmas dinner. I'm figuring I'll ask Bonnie, Ginger, whoever else happens to be around; it'll be fun. But the next day he comes back with "Why don't we go away some place instead?" So, okay, I'm thinking, why not? The man wants to spend Christmas alone with me. This is indicative of Serious Intentions, of getting to know one another on a deeper level. I need to know Jack on a deeper level; I need to figure out what makes him tick cause I'm having limited success on that front so far, but there seems to be something about him that's worth knowing. A man who believes in things like honor and who's dedicated his life to serving his country -- a man like that is worth getting to know, isn't he?

It is possible that my motives were less than pure when I said yes. But a romantic Christmas getaway with an attractive man? Heaven on earth compared to my last two Christmases. Two years ago, the holiday barely registered with me because I was so concerned about Josh's state of mind. Last year, it was hearings and subpoenas and Josh worrying about Leo's testimony. I actually did make it back to Wisconsin for thirty-six hours, during which I got into a huge fight with my father when he said President Bartlet should be impeached. After the last two years, you see, having a peaceful holiday with a man I like instead of working or worrying or arguing seemed like an excellent notion.

So I said yes. I said yes, picturing in my mind some cozy, inexpensive bed and breakfast. By the time he told me he'd made reservations at the Washington Inn, it was too late to back out.

Even though by that time I was having serious second thoughts. Because, as nice as Jack is, on some basic level, we're simply not connecting.

Besides, why wouldn't an inexpensive bed and breakfast be fine? Why is he so insistent on putting all this effort and all this money on something as lavish as the Washington Inn?

Is he trying too hard? Am I not trying hard enough?

This room costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 a night. I'm sure Jack makes decent money, but he certainly is not a resident of that neighborhood. The kind of debt he's racking up here -- he looked positively offended when I offered to pay a portion of the expenses -- this is the kind of grand gesture you make for The Love of Your Life.

I'm no more the love of Jack's life than he is of mine.

This should be as clear to him by now as it is to me. Over the course of the last month, Jack and I have had five dinner dates. We've gone to the theatre once and to the movies twice. Since we work in the same building, getting together for lunch or a coffee break in the mess has been easy to arrange. As a result, I have reached certain conclusions about Lt. Commander Jack Reese. I have decided that he is indeed a nice man, a decent man, and a man totally devoid of passion.

Okay, maybe that's unfair. He must feel passionately about something. It's just that I haven't managed to get him to open up about whatever that is yet.

And it has to be there. I mean, here is a man who listened patiently to my whole vote trading insanity and even went along with it, talking about honor as he walked into the polling place. He works ridiculously long hours, he takes his responsibilities seriously, he obviously cares about the issues he has to deal with, he seems to want to make the world a safer place. These are things I know about Jack and that I find appealing. Still, on some basic level, he refuses to open up with me.

I've tried. God knows I have used every conversational tool I could think of, but nothing brings a spark to his eyes. He never gets so excited about a topic that his hands slice the air with frantic gestures. He never suddenly starts talking so fast that keeping up with his shifting thoughts is a challenge. He never would dream of grabbing you by the shoulders because it is vitally important that you look into his eyes and get what he is trying to tell you.

I keep thinking all that is in Jack some place, if I could only find a way to bring it out. Obviously he's interested in me. Would he go to all this trouble (not to mention expense) for a woman he didn't care about? What kind of idiot would I be to give up on an intelligent, attractive, honorable man who is capable of arranging all this for me?

When Jack talks, he uses all the right words -- duty, honor. These are obviously important concepts to the Lt. Commander. Yet the overall impression I get listening to him is that he's been trained, inoculated, in the use of those words.

Maybe it's the military background. Maybe, in order to be successful in that life, you have to suppress some emotions, not let your feelings come bubbling up to the surface.

Which is a problem because I like men who are, occasionally, vulnerable. I like being needed. Maybe Jack's too damn self-sufficient for me.

I ask him to tell me what he means when he talks about those words that are so important to him. What do they imply to him -- duty and honor? When he uses those words, does he mean the same things I mean? He just looks at me blankly, as though he doesn't understand why I would need a definition.

We're speaking two different languages -- military and liberal Democrat -- and I don't know where to find an interpreter.

Maybe the problem is mine. Maybe I'm expecting too much intimacy too soon. Not all relationships are the same, after all. With some people, you know within three minutes of saying hello. Not necessarily that you love him, but that this relationship is going to be important. That little voice in your head whispers, "Pay attention. Everything about your life is going to change because of this."

Other relationships move more slowly. Some people simply take more time to open up.

Still, it's been one month, five dates and a dozen conversations over coffee, and I'm still no closer to understanding Jack than I was on election day.

One month of dating this man, and I don't have a clue who he really is.

Our conversations are like auditions. We exchange name, rank, serial number. We discuss tastes in music and in literature to see if we're compatible. Having passed those tests, we move on to plans for the future. We have discussed where we'd like to settle down and how many children we'd like to have. There is something unappealing about these conversations, a sense of "Well, okay, maybe you're the most I can hope for" that flatters neither of us.

Lt. Commander Jack Reese, with his lack of passion and his neat and tidy speeches about The Duty of a Member of the Armed Forces, appears to be auditioning candidates for the role of Wife, Mother and Asset to His Career.

It hardly makes a woman feel cherished.

All of which begs the question: Why am I here? Why, when I know this is not the man I want, did I accept the invitation to spend Christmas with him at the Washington Inn?

Depressing as it is to admit, I'm auditioning him too. Maybe I'm being a realist and finally facing up to the fact that I can't have what I want and that Jack is the best I can hope for.

Except, as it turns out, I am not up for a lifetime of this. I need a man who evinces genuine passion for his work and for me. I want a man with whom conversation is a treat, not a chore. I most definitely want a man who's more exciting in bed.

Tonight was the second time I've made love to Jack. I was willing to chalk up the first time to, well, to it being the first time. The problem, I told myself, was that whole awkward not-knowing-what-the-other-person-wants vibe. If Jack was dull, perhaps he had just decided that it was better to err on the side of caution in these situations.

However, my second night with Jack has proved no more satisfying than the first. Making love with Jack is every bit as bland and generic as talking to Jack is. There's no spark, no passion, no laughter.

Also? He doesn't take direction well. It as though, somewhere along the line, Jack read a manual on How to Make Love to a Woman and he's unwilling to deviate from its rules. No matter what you suggest, he has his plan of attack ready and he's sticking to it. Try some subtle instructions -- move his hand from your breast to just inside your thigh -- and a minute later, his hand is back on that breast. Go for the not-so-subtle instruction -- "Slow down; not so hard" -- and it's like the man has gone deaf. For the first time since I left Wisconsin, I gave up and faked an orgasm simply to get him off me.

After which, he gave me a gentlemanly kiss on the forehead, put on his sensible pajamas, turned his back to me, and fell asleep.

I got gypped out of the whole afterglow conversation. I'm a big fan of the afterglow conversation. Maybe that's why I can't sleep. Maybe I need a good conversation even more than I need a good fuck.

It's 5 a.m. He Who Gives Good Conversation should be awake by now. Throwing on a robe as I hop out of bed, I dig around in my overnight bag until I find my cell phone. I'm careful to tiptoe into the bathroom and close the door quietly, so as not to wake Jack. Although I don't think there's much danger of that. He looks pretty dead to the world.

Nice to know the night was that good for one of us.

Resting my back against the bathroom door, I punch in Josh's number and wait. He answers on the second ring, which usually means he hesitated before answering just long enough to check who was calling.

Sure enough, his first words confirm that he already knows it's me. "Donna, what's wrong?" His voice sounds strange -- all raspy like he's got a sore throat or something.

"Nothing's wrong. Things are great. Better than great. This place is fabulous." I'm going for light and breezy here, although it's possible I'm overcompensating. I remind myself that I need to take it down a notch. This, after all, is Josh, who knows when I'm trying too hard. "I just wanted to check in. For work."

He doesn't sound convinced. "On December 24? Don't your people consider this a holiday?"

He's using that tone -- the "here is a problem I must solve" tone -- so I decide to tell him the truth. In part anyway, because my relationship with Jack is certainly none of his business.

"I felt bad," I reply, "about not saying goodbye before I left. So I thought I should call."

"At 5 a.m.?"

"It's kind of the first chance I've had." Make of that what you will, I add mentally.

There's some muttering on the other end of the line that sounds like cursing, though I can't quite make out all the words.

"Josh?"

"Sorry. I, uh, bumped into the coffee table."

"You are so clumsy before you've had your morning coffee."

"I am not clumsy."

"You are. Especially if you're low on caffeine or if -- Josh Lyman, you went to the Hawk and Dove and got drunk without me!" I am, I hate to admit, not succeeding in keeping the disappointment out of my voice.

"Yeah, well, CJ was sticking around, so we figured why not."

"She didn't make plans with Danny? Or decide to turn one of those boy sopranos into a tenor?"

"She and Danny still have the whole conflict of interest thing, and--"

"So Danny's sticking around?" I ask. "Because if he's not covering the White House--"

"It appears he'll be here for some time, yes."

Clipped tones, very businesslike, not taking advantage of a perfectly good opportunity to mock one of his best friends. Something's up.

"Do you need me to come back?" It's no use asking what the problem is. Even if it were something I'm allowed to know about, he wouldn't tell me over an unsecured line.

"No. Stay there. Enjoy your holiday."

"Because it's really no trouble."

"Donna, you had to take a helicopter to get there. The roads are still bad, and--"

"I'll wake Jack up. He rented one of those all-terrain things. It's not a big deal."

A few seconds pass before Josh says anything. I imagine he's calculating how much grief I'll give him later on for wrecking my plans and whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

"Stay," he finally says.

"Josh, honestly, it's not a problem."

"I'd just as soon not be responsible for screwing up your big holiday plans. Again."

Ah, that's what this is about. Him and his whole "it's not what it looks like" back in the office. The infamous Lyman guilt manifesting itself over something that happened two years ago. I swear, sometimes I don't know whether to hug the man or slap him silly.

"Josh," I start, and suddenly there's this image in my head, so plain, of Josh two Christmases ago, alternating between rage and that terrifying shell-shocked stare. I have to take a second and clear my throat before I can finish my thought. "You didn't ruin anything for me."

"You took me to the emergency room and missed your plane to Wisconsin."

"Thereby saving myself from the horror of another Moss family Christmas. Spending the day watching Casablanca with you was much more fun."

He laughs, and I can just see him: The way he throws his head back, and his eyes sparkle, and his dimples come out to play. "'I came to Casablanca for the waters,'" he quotes.

"'The waters?'" I shoot back right on cue. "'What waters? We're in the desert.'"

"'I was misinformed,'" he answers in a perfect imitation of Bogart's deadpan delivery.

We haven't done this in ages, and it's even more fun than I remembered. You see, Josh and I have Casablanca as "our" movie the way other people have "their' song. Just quoting a line from that film recalls a whole chapter of our relationship. In the months after Rosslyn, when Josh was recuperating, I tried to find things that would take his mind off the pain and his inability to go back to work. Movies seemed like a good idea, but the selection was narrowed, considering the circumstances. Anything with explicit violence was out, for obvious reasons. I tried comedy, but Josh would just stare at the screen without laughing. Casablanca was the first thing that got any response from him.
He hadn't seen it in years and just remembered -- this is a direct quote -- "that there's an airplane and Humphrey Bogart, and isn't there something about a song?" I called him culturally illiterate and ordered him to watch it. Before I knew what was happening, Josh was lecturing me about how the movie was all about politics and isolationism and didn't I get that "Casablanca" translated as "White House"? I wanted to tell him to shut up, he was ruining the love story for me, but it was the first time in a month that he'd actually seemed to care about anything.
That was how Casablanca became our weekly ritual. We watched it together so many times that we could recite whole passages of dialogue to one another. Even after he went back to work, we'd spend the occasional evening watching it together, just the two of us.

We haven't done that in more than a year.

"Josh?" I ask. "Bet you've forgotten this one: 'What is your nationality?'" I try a German accent ala Major Strasser and his henchmen, but it sounds pretty pitiful, and I end up giggling to myself.

"'I'm a drunkard,'" he fires back. "And may I say, Donnatella Moss, you're sounding a bit tipsy there yourself."

"There was wine," I explain.

"Ah," he says, but the amused tone he was using a minute ago has vanished, and this awkward silence takes over. Suddenly I'm wondering if Josh thinks it's strange that I'm sneaking out of another man's bed to talk to him. Or if he's even realizes that's what I'm doing.

"Not a lot of wine," I continue, because I really don't want to pursue that train of thought. "Just a bottle. Half a bottle. I mean, there was an entire bottle, but Jack had the other half. It was good wine. It's possible I'm tipsy, but I think I'm approaching sober. What did CJ get you drunk on?"

"Scotch. Quite a lot of it. Would have had more, but CJ cut off my supply."

Josh only drinks scotch when he's depressed. I am suddenly overcome with guilt for having left him. If he's fixating on something -- What was I thinking, anyway? Sam's off in California, Toby's preoccupied with Andi and the babies, CJ's heading off to spend Christmas Day with her brother -- Why is it just now hitting me that I've left Josh all alone?

"Don't," he says, in this half-angry sort of whisper.

"Don't what?"

"You're sitting there, thinking about where everybody is and worrying about my being alone."

"I'm not--"

"I know you, Donna. That's what you're doing."

"I don't want you to be lonely," I tell him.

"God." He laughs again, but this time it sounds bitter. "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world."

"Well, that's an odd quote to be bringing up at this point in the conversation."

Honestly, there is no one in the world I know better than Josh, and sometimes the man still baffles me.

"Trust me. It suits my mood perfectly. I'm drunk, and I'm lonely. All I need is Dooley Freakin' Wilson playing the piano behind me."

Maybe this is about Amy. Maybe he's getting all maudlin over the failure of his latest relationship. Fine. Whatever. I am not getting pulled into a discussion of that particular train wreck. If you want my opinion, she'd take him back faster than you can say "fifty-five percent of the popular vote" and dump him the day President Bartlet left office. But I'm not having that discussion with him. Never knock your boss' ex, especially if it seems like he could be colossally stupid enough to go back to her.

So I deftly turn the conversation to my favorite scene in Casablanca.

"That's a great scene," I say. "I love when it's just the piano playing and then the music swells and they're into the flashback. I love that part."

"The girly part." He's smiling again, I can tell. Probably just the little half-smile he gets when he's trying to pretend he's not amused.

"'Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?'" I quote.

"See, there's all this fascinating stuff in there about the fall of Paris, but, no, all you can focus on is--"

I can't help it; I'm on a roll. "'Kiss me,'" I whisper in the best Bergman impression I can muster. "'Kiss me as if it were the last time.'" After which, it is possible that I giggle.

Another few seconds of silence pass before Josh mutters, "Yeah, you're not drunk at all there, Ingrid."

"I like it." I sound defensive even to myself. "It's romantic."

"Losing the woman you love to another man and not being able to do a damn thing about it?" he asks. "That's not romantic; that's pitiful."

I feel the need to defend Humphrey Bogart. "He was being noble; he made a grand sacrifice for the good of the cause."

"Yeah," Josh says, and I can hear the bitterness creeping back into his voice, "I'm sure that was a hell of a comfort to him after she'd gone."

Oh. I get it. I know what we're really talking about here.

Amy.

I was right. He's considering getting back together with her if she'll have him.
Which she will. Which is good, I suppose. Josh deserves to be happy. Not that he'd ever let me come right out and say so directly.

"She wanted him, Josh. God knows she made it clear enough to anybody who was watching."

"And yet she didn't hesitate to get on that plane," he points out.

"Well, I'm sure she wouldn't have if she'd been given a real choice." I pause for a minute, thinking about that scene Josh and I have watched together a few dozen times, when Bogart gives his whole speech about how "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world" as he sends Ingrid Bergman off with Paul Heinreid. I can warm up to this topic, mostly because it takes us away from the uncomfortable topic of Josh's feelings for Amy. "See, that's the problem with Casablanca. Nobody gives poor Ingrid a chance to make up her own mind."

I hear Josh's amusement, and I can imagine him sitting on his couch, throwing his head back and laughing at what I'm saying. "You're going on a feminista rant now, aren't you?" he asks.

"I am pointing out that Ingrid Bergman's character is treated as though she's a prize for these men to be fighting over, yes. God, she even tells Rick to do all her thinking for her. What kind of a woman says something like that?"

"Clearly not Donnatella Moss."

"Damn right not Donnatella Moss. This isn't 1941, and I'm not Ingrid Bergman. I'll make up my own mind about who I want to spend my life with, thank you very much."

For a few seconds, Josh doesn't say anything. Then he asks, "So who would you have chosen -- Rick or Victor?"

It's a silly question in some ways, but it strikes a little too close to home in others. I mean, isn't that what I'm doing here with Jack? Trying to decide if I could spend my life with one kind of man when I know that part of me wants something very different? And so I do what I always do when confronted with awkward truths: I babble.

"I never thought about it," I tell Josh. "Rick, I suppose. I mean, I know Victor was supposed to be this big hero of the Resistance and all, but there was something about him that was just too good to be true, you know? Who'd want to live with someone like that? I'd rather have a man with flaws. And a sense of humor. Victor had no sense of humor. Everyone around him tosses off these great one-liners, and he's too busy leading the crowd in a chorus of the Marseilles to notice."

"So it's Rick because he's flawed?"

"And because he has a sense of humor, yes. Although the noble gesture at the end works against him."

"Because he didn't let Ingrid make up her own mind?"

"Exactly." I'm nodding my head vigorously, despite the fact that Josh can't see me. "I don't want some man sending me off on a helicopter because it's what's best for me. I want to make up my own mind."

"Donna?"

"What?"

"You said helicopter." There's this quality in Josh's voice that I can't quite define, almost as though he's afraid to say what he's thinking. Which is ridiculous because whatever other flaws he may have, Josh Lyman has never been afraid to speak his mind.

"I did what?"

"She got on an airplane in the movie. You said helicopter."

"Did I?" I think back over my words, realizing what I've done. It's probably just as well that Josh can't see how I'm blushing. "Well, I guess after that helicopter ride here..." I'm faltering for a reasonable explanation. "It's a logical mistake, I guess. I'm getting tired, have I mentioned?"

"You should sleep," he says. There's something very soothing about Josh's voice. It's almost like a caress.

I shouldn't associate the name "Josh" with "caress." Not when I'm on a romantic vacation with another man and Josh is apparently fixated on Amy.

"She wants you back, you know," I hear myself saying. Being noble sucks, but I hate to think of Josh all sad and alone.

"What?" On the other end of the line, Josh sounds confused. "Who are you talking about?"

"Amy, of course. Your lost love."

"Donna." There's that laugh again, the one that's halfway between bitter and self-deprecating. "Do you think I'm sitting here alone because I miss Amy?"

"Well, aren't you?"

"No, I'm not."

"Then why are you so unhappy?"

He doesn't say anything for a minute, but I can hear him breathing. It's intimate in a strange kind of way, like having my ear pressed up against his chest. I could happily fall asleep listening to him. I've almost lost the thread of the conversation when he whispers, "Because I'm no good at being noble."

There's something important in all this; there are bits of the conversation that I should examine more closely; but before I can piece it all together, I hear Jack calling my name from the bedroom. "Oh, hell," I mumble.

"What?" Josh asks. He sounds strange too, as though he's worried about what I'm going to say next.

"Jack just woke up," I explain. "I should probably go."

"Yeah," Josh says, and there's something almost, I don't know, resigned about his tone of voice. "You should do that."

"I'll be back day after tomorrow," I promise.

"Take your time."

"And you have the number here. In case you need me."

"Don't worry. Just enjoy your vacation."

"Josh." I want to tell him that we need to back up this conversation, start it over, so I can examine it and figure out what I'm missing here. Instead I just say, "When I come home, can we watch Casablanca again? Just the two of us?"

"That would be nice," he says, but there's something about his voice that suggests he really doesn't expect that to happen. He says goodbye then and hangs up before I can reassure him that it will.

It's only after I've turned off my cell phone that I realize something: Jack is my Victor Laslo. That is exactly who he reminds me of -- my honorable, dedicated, too-good-to-be-true boyfriend. He is a decent man who does important work, and I think that what he's looking for is Ingrid Bergman, the way Bogart describes her at the end of the movie -- "you're part of Victor's work, the thing that keeps him going." His muse, his inspiration, the woman behind the man.

And that's not who I want to be.

I would much rather be the woman beside the man. I would rather be a partner than a muse, rather be working with a man than sending him off to fight his battles alone. Josh would laugh if I told him that. He'd point out that, in our Casablanca analogy, that would make me Claude Rains. But I'd like that better. I'd rather walk off into the distance with Bogart, at the beginning of a beautiful friendship, than get on an airplane with Paul Heinreid.

And yet. There's a cautious part of me pointing out that Ingrid Bergman must have seen something worthwhile in the Paul Heinreid character and maybe I shouldn't give up on my Victor Laslo so quickly. Maybe I should give him a chance, find out if he really is too good to be true.

Maybe that's the real lesson of Casablanca. Maybe what Ingrid Bergman needed was time to reflect and decide which man and which kind of relationship she wanted. I'll give this thing with Jack a few more weeks. After all, it's not as though Bogart is waiting for me to make up my mind.

THE END
06.19.03