Madam President, page 11
While she held for the president, Melanie returned to her memories of the conversations she used to have with Charlotte late at night in the residence. She remembered one night when Charlotte spoke about the move from the governor’s mansion in Sacramento to the White House.
“I was such an idiot, Mel. I thought that we could turn the move to Washington into an exciting new chapter for our family. Of course, that idea was squashed once we decided to send the kids to boarding school in Connecticut. God, the house was so empty. Peter missed them so much, and I was never around, and it was all so devastatingly quiet. Peter blamed me for dismantling the family he’d always wanted. And after that, the whole thing fell apart. Peter did what he had to do to survive. I really believe that. I think he almost died of loneliness.”
Melanie shivered at the memory of Charlotte’s pain and realized that soon she’d have a family of her own that could inflict that much pain on her.
“Melanie, are you still there?”
“Sam said that the president is en route to her speech at the Women’s Museum, but she’ll have her call you as soon as she’s back.”
“Thanks, Annie. Please be sure to tell Sam that it’s nothing important.”
As Dale watched Craig, Marguerite, Brooke, and Mark follow the president out the door of the Oval Office and into the motorcade, she had the unnerving feeling that Peter could read her mind. Despite the fact that she had spent almost two years trying to get over him, she was certain that she could slip back into love with him in sixty seconds if he offered the slightest hint that he still had feelings for her. She closed her eyes briefly and reminded herself that she was in a relationship with a wonderful, available man who adored her. When she opened her eyes, Peter was staring back at her without any of the intensity or lust that Dale was feeling. In fact, he was looking at her with an ambivalence that suggested either that he’d forgotten the most passionate moments of their affair—the ones Dale replayed in her mind over and over again—or that he was so completely in love with his wife again that he regarded his relationship with Dale as one that had helped him pass the time while he and Charlotte sorted through their complicated union. Either way, it was clear that he wasn’t eager to relive any of it. Dale, on the other hand, had spent hours upon hours during the first lonely months after their breakup committing to memory every detail of their romance. The one thing she’d never been able to recall was their last kiss. Dale couldn’t remember where or when it took place and whether she’d had any idea that it would be the last time they were that close. Now, with only a touch of self-awareness about the lunacy of her thought process, she wondered whether he might kiss her right there in the Oval Office.
“Do you want to do this in here or in the private dining room?”
Peter’s voice jolted Dale from her deranged fantasy. “What?”
“Would you prefer to talk in here, or would you rather go into Charlotte’s private dining room?”
Peter was standing as far away from her as was physically possible inside the Oval Office. He was probably appalled that he had to spend any time with her at all.
What is wrong with you? Dale asked herself.
She told herself that nothing was going to happen between them. He was with his wife now, and his wife was Dale’s boss.
Her boyfriend was one of the most sought-after bachelors in Washington, and for reasons she didn’t entirely grasp, he wanted her.
Most important, it was Dale’s job to help the first family through their first major political crisis involving one of their children.
As soon as the assignment to stay behind and work with Peter had escaped Craig’s lips, he had looked as though he wanted to take it back. The president’s face betrayed nothing, but her best friends, Brooke and Mark, had nearly gasped.
She hadn’t been alone in a room with him since the day they’d broken up at his home in Pacific Heights almost two years earlier. She remembered the day the way people often describe their memories of a car crash. The frostiness that she’d created between them by complaining all morning about the lack of cell-phone coverage had turned what was supposed to be a romantic weekend reunion into a tense standoff. She’d been working for the vice president at the time, and she was under constant pressure from the West Wing and from the vice president’s husband to shield the vice president from mounting scrutiny from the press. Peter had picked her up from the airport and taken her for a hike at Stinson Beach, one of her favorite places. After their hike, he’d surprised her by taking her to a beach house he’d purchased and renovated as a retreat for their rare weekends together in California. Dale had reacted like a spoiled two-year-old. She’d complained about him putting too much pressure on their relationship by buying a home without discussing it with her first. Her reaction had caused the fraying ties between them to come undone once and for all. In an instant, the most passionate love affair of her life came to a crushing end. They spoke a few times afterward, but she’d hurt him too deeply for him ever to reconsider any of her efforts at reconciliation. Less than a year after his breakup with Dale, Peter and Charlotte had reunited. Peter moved back into the White House to give his marriage to Charlotte another try.
Dale knew from the newspapers and from the East Wing staff members, who gossiped to the point of near treason, that he still divided his time between his office in California and Washington, but Dale was surprised that she had never run into him at the White House. Now Dale was doing everything in her power to focus on the task at hand when she desperately wanted to know if he’d struggled as much as she had to move on and if he ever thought about her or missed her.
“I’m sorry. I was trying to figure out how long we had until someone had to go on the record, but I just realized that the president will be the first to comment when she does the CBS interview before her speech.”
“Does that mean that we have more time or less time?”
“It means that I need to make sure I get her exact language from Marguerite before my daily briefing with the press. And, between us, we have very little time, though we’ll make Penny feel like we have all the time in the world.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that. I know that Charlotte will, too.”
Peter looked so distraught Dale wanted to hug him. She didn’t dare.
“You don’t have to thank me,” Dale said softly.
For the first time that morning, he smiled at her. And it was that crinkly-eyed smile that had sparked the most intense love affair of her life the very first time she’d seen it five and a half years earlier.
God, she wanted to touch his face so badly.
“So, what’s the plan, Madam Press Secretary?”
“We’ll need to make sure Penny knows how to redirect all the press inquiries. The phone calls are easy, but a lot of reporters will try to reach her on social media. She’s interning at Google, right?”
“We need to contact the press office at Google to see if we can help them with a statement that says that this is a family matter.”
Peter nodded in agreement as they sat down across from each other. Peter was facing the flat-screen TVs on the wall.
“Let me know when the president starts speaking. I’m supposed to allow the CBS crew to film me watching her deliver the speech so they can capture my reaction—as though I don’t know what’s in the speech.”
Peter raised an eyebrow. “That sounds like pretty complicated stagecraft.”
“Too complicated. I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea to invite two dozen film crews inside this place for twenty-four hours,” Dale complained.
“It’s a great idea. Charlotte was excited about it. I’m sorry Penny messed it up.”
“The president was excited? If that’s the case, and I’m skeptical that it is, then I’m even more sorry that she has t
“If there’s one thing Charlotte is accustomed to, it is living her life under the white-hot glare of the media spotlight.”
“Speaking of the white-hot glare, how do you think she would feel about us sending someone from the press office out to Menlo Park? We would have them out there by this evening, and they could tag along with Penny’s Secret Service agents to intercept any reporters who try to ambush Penny or her friends or anyone from her internship program. They’d also be there in case Penny has any questions about how we’re handling inquiries about her post.”
“If you can spare someone, Charlotte will be fine with it. I will make sure Penny is on board.”
“Of course, I can spare someone. I’d send Marguerite if we weren’t stuck with the CBS crews,” Dale replied.
Dale laid out a plan to spin Penny’s Facebook post and Charlotte’s reaction to it as a “teachable moment.” It was a cliché, but it represented the best option for the circumstances. The White House would suggest that parents remember to engage their kids in conversations about the debates that dominate the news headlines and seek out their opinions about big decisions they have to make in the workplace. Dale took a few more notes and then looked up at Peter.
“Did we forget anything?” he asked.
“I don’t think so. I’ll get Monica from my office on a flight right away. It’s a good possibility that the nets and cables will send their West Coast correspondents to do live shots from outside her apartment or at Google. They may just have their White House correspondents do the story from here, but some of them might want to report from out there.”
“I’d rather the world not see where Penny lives.”
“Me, too. I’m just warning you that it’s possible that some of them will stake her out.”
“Incredible that they’d do that. She’s a kid.”
“Peter, can I ask you something?”
His eyes looked slightly wary, but his face remained relaxed. “Sure.”
“How are you doing? Is everything going well? Are you happy? Because I really, really hope that you’re happy—that you’re always happy. That’s something I always want to know that you have. Happiness.”
Why, of all days, was today the day that she’d lost the ability to speak in sentences?
She smiled awkwardly. Peter’s head tilted to the side while she was speaking, but when she stopped rambling, he looked at her with his crinkly-eyed smile again.
“We’re doing great. How are you doing? How’s that young boyfriend of yours? Charlotte says he’s a tremendous guy. I’m really pleased for you.”
“Yeah, he’s a great guy. He’s probably too good for me, but everything is good. It’s really good. I’m great. We’re great. It’s good that you’re so good, too, of course.”
It was like she was speaking in Pig Latin. Dale found herself wishing for an urgent press call or, better yet, seven thousand urgent press calls that would distract her for the next ten years so she wouldn’t have to relive the day she was having. Peter was so over her that he actually seemed happy for her and Warren.
“Thanks for your help with Penny,” he repeated.
“Peter, look, before you go, I want to say something, and I don’t want you to take it the wrong way,” Dale said carefully. She’d badly botched every attempt she’d made in the last fifteen minutes to create some moment in which they connected. While she didn’t want to jam her foot into her mouth again, she was sure she could still make him see that she understood him and cared about him.
“I know how close you and Penny are. The thing I always admired most about you was that she came first. Think about it; she has grown up knowing that she was—and is—your top priority. For a kid, that’s got to be everything you ever want and need in life. And I know it means a lot to you, too, to be there for her. What I wanted to say before you leave was that I hope you know that what she did today isn’t your fault.”
Dale saw the flash of pain cross his face. She held her breath and willed herself not to reach out and touch him while he looked at her with his beautiful blue eyes that were sadder and more lined than she remembered them. She sat across from him, suspended in time by the look on his face.
And then, as quickly as his face had seemed to register her words as an opening to talk to her, it closed back up. He regarded her with a look that Dale recognized as his polite face. His cell phone rang, and he stood to take the call.
Dale knew that whatever opportunity she had had to break through to Peter had passed. She gathered her papers and waved good-bye with a whispered promise to be in touch with regular updates about Penny-related press coverage.
Clare greeted her as soon as she walked back into her office.
“Coffee?” she asked.
“No more coffee. Maybe a bottle of water?”
“Right there.” Clare pointed at the side of Dale’s desk, where three unopened bottles of water were lined up.
“And there are cold ones in the fridge,” Clare added.
“Thanks, Clare. Has the president started speaking yet?”
“How late are we?”
“About forty-five minutes. Listen, I need to send the CBS crew in to film you watching the coverage of Charlotte’s speech, which is going to start any minute. They said you promised them they could be in here all day.”
“Give me five minutes.”
“Two,” Clare offered.
“They will be in here in three minutes or as soon as the president starts talking, whichever comes first. They are really mad. They keep reminding me that you are in violation of the ground rules that you negotiated with them, which was round-the-clock, unfettered access.”
“Fine. But it’s ridiculous that they’re angry. Sometimes things come up that require privacy.”
Clare shrugged, and Dale knew she was thinking that she wasn’t the one who’d made the deal with the network, but she needed to direct her frustrations at someone.
Dale sat down and started typing an e-mail to Peter. She wanted to apologize for being tongue-tied and awkward and thank him for being so normal. She also wanted to tell him, once again, how happy she was that he was happy. Her iPhone vibrated on her desk.
Dale looked down and saw Warren’s office number. She hit ignore and looked down at the e-mail message she’d started drafting to Peter. Then it hit her. She was acting like one of those delusional women she always rooted against in chick flicks. She deleted the message to Peter from her compose window and stood up. She looked out the window at the cameramen outside the door to the briefing room. They were smoking and laughing about something. Dale wished she could escape the confines of her office and sit outside in the morning sun. She picked up her phone to return Warren’s call, but before he picked up, Clare barged in with the camera crew in tow, and Dale hung up.
As they rolled through downtown D.C. in the giant armored limo, Charlotte tried to pinpoint the exact moment she’d started treating Penny like another disenchanted stakeholder. Whatever mothering instincts she’d once possessed had been replaced along the way by her desire to neutralize and contain Penny’s hostility. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d tried talking to her about anything other than the logistics of her life.
“Riding in this thing is like being trapped in a rolling meat locker. Aren’t you two freezing?” Brooke complained.
“It keeps the mind sharp, darling. Maybe we should lower the temperature in our house to keep your head clear, like Char’s.” Mark snapped his fingers in front of Brooke’s face while she swatted him away.
“How badly do you think I’ve screwed Penny up?” Charlotte asked her friends.
“Oh, Christ, everyone ends up in therapy, Char. If Mother Teresa had kids, even they would be screwed up in this day and age. It’s the goddamned Inte
Brooke gave Mark a dirty look and rubbed her goose-bump-covered arms.
“You weren’t exactly running a ‘Just say no’ campaign from deep inside that pot den disguised as a fraternity,” she jabbed.
“Ignore her. She’s extra-nasty when she’s cleansing,” he explained.
The limo stopped in front of the Women’s Museum. Brooke and Mark were ushered to their seats in the front row, while Charlotte waited for Monty, her lead advance man, to brief her. She could live for weeks without ever seeing most of her policy advisors, but she was fairly certain she couldn’t get through an afternoon without Monty’s skilled, near-invisible hand guiding her smoothly through every official interaction and event. It fell to Monty to remind her of the names of foreign dignitaries, small-state governors, and big-state congresspeople. He always remembered to bring the gift, the coat, the umbrella, or anything else that Charlotte might request. And while he had an answer to almost every question she posed, he never tried to spin her or make a situation appear more appealing than it actually was.
She liked that Monty had managed to hang on to some of his pre-Washington identity. Monty was a former professional surfer from Santa Cruz, and while he’d adopted the D.C. uniform of blue suit, white dress shirt, Vineyard Vines tie, and loafers, he’d refused to trim his wavy blond hair. He wore it in a neat ponytail at the base of his neck. Monty had a dry sense of humor and never made idle chitchat. Charlotte had thought, on more than one occasion, that if Peter were able to read her moods half as well as Monty could, their relationship would be on firmer ground.