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Don't Judge a Book By Its Title

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October, 2018

 

         “Alright, well, you have been no help whatsoever,” Sam said with one of his short little out breaths.

         “Aw, Sammy, don’t be mad,” Josh slurred a bit, contorting his face in mock sympathy. He took a sip of the cabernet sauvignon he’d been nursing all night and lovingly raised his eyebrows at Sam behind thick-framed glasses.

Josh sat— the visible personification of sarcasm— in his black, cable knit sweater, their dog, Rosie, taking up the entirety of the sofa beside him. As Josh set down his wine and turned back to make a fake puppy-dog face at Sam, Rosie (short for Roosevelt) lifted her face to glance over at Sam, too.

Sam just looked at the pair of them, mugging at him from the couch, and sighed. Getting a pit bull had been his bright idea immediately following the whole Montreal bully-breed ban last year. Though Josh had initially vetoed the notion, within a week, the two of them had teamed up against Sam, and Rosie was undeniably Josh’s dog. She had even picked up his caustic looks and exasperated groans.

         “I’m calling CJ,” Sam announced, reaching for his phone on the side table by the chair, “She’s good at this kind of thing.”

         “Yeah, call CJ, CJ’s great,” Josh said, taking another sip, trying not to laugh at nothing. Sam shot him a look, and Josh went back to petting Rosie and reading the paper, his lips curling into a smile under his silver scruff of a beard. Readjusting in his easy chair, Sam leaned against one arm and propped his knees against the other, balancing his phone on his left leg and his note pad on his right. As the Face Time tones rang, he scratched his nose under his glasses, trying to ignore Josh’s cheeky expression.

After a minute, CJ’s face pixilated into view. Her lightening cream was plastered to the roots of her hair, she had charcoal eye strips on her cheeks, and she was awkwardly positioned on her bed trying to paint her toenails.

         “Sam, I’m leaning you against my laptop because I’m supposed to be reading this UNESCO report,” she informed him as the sound came on, “But I’m a very talented multi-tasker…” she trailed off when she realized she’d knocked the dark bottle of red nail polish onto her white comforter.

         “Clearly!” Sam chuckled at her as she scrambled to clean it up.

         “Okay, Sam, what do you want from me?” she asked when she managed to regain control of her nail polish situation.

         “We’re brainstorming titles for my book to take to my publisher tomorrow,” Sam said, flipping through his scribbled notes, “And it’s not going so well.”

         “It’s goin’ great,” Josh interjected from across the room.

         “Hey, Josh,” CJ said, not paying him very much attention.

         “Hey, CJ.” The dog let out a low grunt, so Josh added, “Rosie says hi, too.”

         “So what does your publisher say?” CJ asked Sam, “Commanding verbs and youthful pictures of you looking somewhat beachy?”

         “Yes,” Sam tugged on the sleeves of Josh’s old Yale sweatshirt and took a sip of his cheap chardonnay from California, the kind that Josh made fun of him for drinking despite constantly criticizing everyone else’s wine. Sam didn’t have to look at his husband to know that he was rolling his eyes at the hypocrisy of a self-proclaimed wine snob drinking 2017 chardonnay. Rosie was probably rolling her eyes at him right about now, too, “Yes, commanding verbs and lots of dignity and the future and, you know, looking so venerable that they don’t think about the fact that I… y’know, have been sleeping with a man for two and a half decades.”

Josh let out a low, self-satisfied laugh from the back of his throat without opening his mouth. CJ bit her lip. Rosie sighed.

         “Isn’t the whole point of running that you’re basically the queer community’s answer to Kennedy?” CJ questioned, catching a strip as it fell from under her eye, “That’s like, you’re biggest selling point.”

         “Well, that and my sound, progressive platform, decades of political experience, consistent Congressional voting record, and my vision for an equitable, just economy that works for all Americans regardless of race, gender, or background.” Sam rambled, swirling the wine at the bottom of his glass.

         “I’m guessing you’ve ruled out Hey Look, Everybody, I’m Running For President,” she joked flatly.

         “Oh, ha ha,” he rolled his eyes at her and gingerly placed down his glass on the side table, “Just… I need your help because we got nothing.”

         “Don’t believe a word of it, CJ,” Josh chimed in, aggressively flipping a page of the sports section at Sam, “I’ve made some outstanding suggestions that he has spurned.”

Sam looked at CJ over his glasses and said, “Josh’s big contribution was Seaborn to Lead.”

         “You’re not saying it right!” Josh cried, “It’s supposed to be See? Born to Lead.”

         “He knows that you’re angling for the Presidency, not a standup special on Netflix, right?” CJ chortled, raising an eyebrow.

         “First of all, I am not necessarily angling for the Presidency,” Sam said, “And second, he acknowledged that possibility with his winning suggestion of Husband of the Future First First Gentleman.” CJ snorted, and Sam went on, “That wasn’t even his worst one.”

         “My suggestions are excellent,” Josh said.

         “What’s his worst one?” CJ asked, ignoring Josh.

Sam cleared his throat and told her, “I think it’s a three-way tie between The Hot Gay One, Don’t Tread On Me Or My Louis Vuitton Shoes, and Open Parenthesis Sea Closed Parenthesis Born This Gay.”

CJ let out one of her signature cackles, as Josh shouted, “No, no, no, Sam, you forgot my best work.”

Sam sighed and said, “LBGTQ-OTUS.”

         “Tell her the other ones,” Josh flashed Sam a smirk.

         “Josh, the other ones are vulgar,” Sam said indignantly.

         “Tell her, tell her!” Josh insisted.

Sam turned back to the phone screen where CJ watched with an entertained face and started, “CJ, I want to apologize for my husband…”

         “Tell her!”

         “….he has had a little to drink this evening...”

         “A Top's Rise to the Top.”

         “JOSH!” Sam squealed, pushing up his glasses to cover his face with his hands.

CJ’s laugh was so loud that the only sound the phone made was scratchy feedback. Rosie leapt to investigate the strange noise as Josh cracked up on the couch, wiping away mischievous tears of laughter. When Sam felt the blush in his face start to evaporate, he peeked his eyes from between his fingers, but this just made CJ laugh harder. He turned to Josh, who was still collecting himself, and mouthed, “Does this make you happy?”

Josh pursed his lips, stuck out his fingers making an inch, and mouthed back, “Lil’ bit.”

Over the years, since leaving the White House, one of Josh’s favorite hobbies had become watching Sam flounder to apologize on his behalf. Partially, because Josh had used up his public filter for dirty jokes about their relationship when he had to give a shit about his own reputation. But mostly because he found Sam to be exceptionally adorable when he was embarrassed.

         “CJ, I am so, so sorry about that,” Sam sighed when they were all recovered. He tried not to look over at Josh, knowing all too well that he would be gleefully beaming a wicked grin.

Josh knew exactly where the overlap in the Venn diagram was of things he could say in front of people that were bad enough to make Sam’s face turn bright red but that would not actually piss him off. And CJ was his favorite person with whom to test that limit because her laugh was the most rewarding response, second only to Sam blushing and squirming in chagrined amusement.

         “He’s still not house broken,” Sam went on.

         “Can’t take him anywhere,” CJ said as Josh just took another sip of wine with raised eyebrows.

         “He is, in fact, a teenage boy cleverly disguised as a 58-year-old man,” Sam said.

Josh’s boyish dimples flashed right on cue as he muttered, “And you’re a cantankerous old bastard not so cleverly disguised as a 52-year-old hunk who also happens to be a service t…”

         “Josh, honey, I swear to God…” Sam spit, slamming his pencil down for emphasis.

         “Let’s talk titles!” CJ cried, a serious expression poorly concealing that she was trying not to laugh again.

         “Yes, please,” Sam begged, “Just let me get to my notes.”

As Sam flipped through his legal pad, Josh stood up, stretched over-dramatically, and tossed back the last gulp of his wine. He crossed to place a kiss on Sam’s head and said, “Goodnight, you two,” and made his way towards the bedroom, detouring to drop his glass in the sudsy dishpan, Rosie trotting behind him. Sam was already completely buried in his notes, and simply called over his shoulder, “Don’t forget to take your meds.”

Sam and CJ talked for another half hour, mismatching different action words with “vision” and “ethics” and “conviction,” carefully avoiding the words his publisher had deemed to divisive like “progressive” or “liberal” or "gay." Nothing clicked. His publisher was pushing the President Bartlet motif of Practical Idealism. CJ kept scrunching her nose at it when Sam would circle back around to it.

         “Why do you keep making that face?” Sam asked the third or fourth time.

         “I’m not making a face,” CJ protested.

         “You don’t think it’s a advisable connect myself to President Bartlet?” Sam pushed, stopping to take the final sip of his chardonnay.

         “I don’t think it’s advisable to define yourself by President Bartlet,” CJ corrected.

Sam sighed and went to take another sip from his empty glass, did a double-take, and then set it back down, “If I’m not supposed to define myself by my liberalism, or by my sexuality, or by my history with the Bartlet administration, what am I supposed to define myself by?”

         “You’re supposed to define yourself by Future President Seaborn.” CJ insisted, “Why haven’t you been trying to pull quotes from the book itself?”

         “We have!” Sam explained, “Nothing has jumped out as being title material. I’m too verbose.”

CJ laughed and said, “I’ll skim through it and see if anything jumps out at me. Can you just send me the PDF again, I know I’ve got it somewhere, it’s jut buried in all the other files right now.”

         “Sure thing.”

They signed off, and Sam forwarded the e-mail with the PDF of the book to CJ before he forgot. Yawning, he pulled himself out of the chair with the persistent tiny pop of his knee. He’d have to see somebody about that. He figured it was because he hadn’t been running enough. Josh figured it was because he’d been running too much. Rejected titles spinning in his brain, he scrubbed the dishes and loaded them into the dishwasher. Rosie reappeared to munch fallen scraps as he did. Once she determined that she had scrounged it all, she plopped herself into Sam’s abandoned easy chair, over which they had an ongoing turf war. The chair was her favorite spot in the house besides anywhere that Josh was. Sam could relate.

Humming to himself, he wiped down the counters; the smell of artificial lemon always seemed to leave him feeling as though he had not only washed the countertops, but scrubbed away at whatever was stressing him out so that he could go to bed relaxed. As often as he would selectively whine about Josh not doing enough around the house, he knew Josh left these particular tasks for him at the end of the night strictly for the therapeutic ritual they provided. Josh had long ago observed a strong correlation between Sam’s grumpiness level each night and whether or not he had done the washing up. It was just one of his little routines. Like the minimum of twenty minutes he spent in front of the mirror each night on his teeth and skincare.

After said bedtime procedure was complete, Sam pulled off the sweatshirt and stepped into a pair of flannel pajama bottoms, his mind no longer as fixated on the title as he moved to their bedroom, illuminated only by the lamp on Sam’s bedside that Josh had left on for him. He slipped into the bed, and Josh shifted to press his back into Sam’s side and let out a lion roar of a yawn. Sam began situating his pillows, but his phone started ringing up from the nightstand. Josh chuckled in his sleepiness, having covertly changed Sam’s ringtone to Hail to the Chief. Again. Sam groaned at him and grabbed his phone, hiking it up to his ear with his shoulder so that he could playfully punch Josh with his hands.

         “Hey,” Sam said into the phone, leaning back against the headboard.

         “Hey, Sam,” came CJ’s reply, “So I’m reading the book.”

         “Is that your mistress?” Josh still managed to joke despite being half asleep.

         “Shh, it’s CJ, go to sleep,” he rocked Josh’s shoulder lightly. “Don’t you have a UNESCO report you’re supposed to be reading?” Sam chided her lovingly.

         “I get the gist. Nobody’s paying women,” CJ shrugged off his comment before saying, “You know, I’d forgotten, but Josh’s foreword is really very sweet.”

         “It is,” Sam replied softly.

         “Do you ever just stop and think about how much he loves you?” CJ went on.

         “I do,” he smiled, looking over at his husband who was letting out heavy breaths of sleep into the pillowcase.

         “The story about you citing legal precedent on why you should be the one to pay after your first official date is still just golden,” CJ laughed.

         “It is.”

She kept laughing a little as she read aloud, “‘All I knew was that I had to get him out of there before he cross-examined the waiter.’”

A quiet fell for a moment as CJ kept reading to herself, allowing Sam to remember being that young, sparring with Josh over their empty plates. Sam’s fists clamped tightly around his fork as he leaned across the table intently, Josh tipped back in his chair, arms folded casually, eyebrows raised. In hindsight, Josh was probably not even remotely invested in the outcome of the argument— after all, the stakes were only about sixteen dollars for burgers and shakes— he was simply enjoying riling Sam up. Sam could remember Josh’s face, dripping with amused tenderness, and the corresponding feeling of over-inflated pride when Josh finally caved to let Sam pay. In the moment, he would have said he was proud he out-paced Josh in the debate. But, subconsciously, it did make him feel pretty damn special that he was the one taking Josh out, that he was the one who got to correct the waiter and say, “No, together” when asked if they were going to need separate checks, that he was getting to treat Josh, even if it was just to burgers and milkshakes.

He was brought back to the present moment when CJ read the line, “‘The risk about being as eloquent and principled as Sam is that, at first, it’s hard to take that much idealism and integrity seriously. But then you get to know him and you realize that, not only does he actually believe all of those things, he epitomizes them.’”

Sam sighed happily, taking in the picture of Josh falling asleep in the lamplight. He sat contentedly in the silence of nothing but CJ’s concentrated breathing and Josh’s soft snores. Then he heard CJ let out a deep breath and say in a genuinely moved voice, “God, Sam,” before clearing her throat and reading the conclusion of Josh’s foreword, “‘So yes, do enjoy my husband’s beautiful words but know this: part of what makes his words so stunningly spectacular is his singular dedication to take each word and turn it into a tangible action, the impact of which we might never comprehend, with diligence, patience, intelligence, and insight. Sam Seaborn may talk the talk better than anyone I have ever met, but his words have got nothing on how sincerely he means them.’”

         “Yeah, I knew I’d been keeping him around for a reason,” Sam mused with a slight smile, letting his fingers feather across Josh’s hair. “Look, CJ, I appreciate your help, but I think I need you to call me tomorrow if you have any ideas because it’s past my bedtime.”

         “You’re so old.”

         “CJ, I’m younger than you are by like… five years.”

         “Sleep well, Sam!” she feigned an annoyed voice, hanging up abruptly. Sam chuckled and plugged his phone back in, letting out a sigh before snuggling down in to the comforter. He placed a tiny peck on Josh’s scruffy cheek and got a grunt in response. Just after he flipped off the lamp, his phone dinged loudly and lit up with his text alert. He fumbled for his glasses and glanced at the screen. It was from CJ. It simply read, “Words Into Actions.”

Before he could even sit up all the way, the second text buzzed in, “That’s your title.” He pulled himself up, the sheet falling from his bare chest, and started to try and respond with sleepy fingers, but the third block of text came in from CJ that said, “That’s who you are. You’re not just gay JFK. You’re not just Jed Bartlet’s shadow. You’re not just the pretty progressive. You’re the guy who makes words and uses them to take actions. Like Josh said. Words Into Actions. That’s who you are. That’s your title.”

He blinked for a second, and Josh stirred beside him, grumbling unintelligibly and rolling over to drop an arm across Sam’s stomach. Sam held the phone down towards Josh’s face for him to see. Josh squinted tightly, silently reading for a moment before falling back, half on the pillow and half on Sam.

         “S’perfect,” he muttered into Sam’s shoulder, “Pretty fucking perfect.”

         “You think so?”

         “Mmm hmm.”

Sam quickly sent his affirmation to CJ and set down his phone before adjusting to pull Josh into the crook of his arm, “Looks like you ended up naming my book after all.”

         “Least I can do,” Josh whispered, his eyes still closed, a smile crossing his lips that bordered on earnest, “After, y’know, everything.”

         “Everything?” Sam inquired fondly.

         “Y’know, marrying me and stuff,” Josh’s face was becoming increasingly smushed into Sam’s skin as he babbled incoherently something about the best husband and the cutest butt. Sam laughed lightly, trying to decide if Josh was even awake enough to remember this conversation tomorrow.

When Sam closed his eyes, he drifted off while drafting a hypothetical foreword for Josh in his head.