The day after the Korean Embassy party found Sharon back at work, as usual, intently trying to run down some information on an old European trade agreement. She had just found something that looked close when Jean Bouyer cleared her throat.
That the press secretary was a little on the round side, most people got. What startled most folks was her short stature. Bouyer tried to enhance her four feet, ten inches by always wearing at least 3-inch high heels and piling her shiny red hair on top of her head, which would have looked ridiculous on most similarly sized women. But the look probably worked for Bouyer simply because she was one of those short women who filled a room with her presence.
Sharon hadn’t had much contact with Jean beyond the occasional lunchtime chat in the cafeteria, so she was a little surprised to see Jean standing in her doorway.
“Hey, Jean, what’s up?” Sharon asked, trying not to keep one eye on her laptop’s screen.
“An interview request,” Jean said in her oddly flat voice.
“Max Epstein wants to do a story on you.”
“Why would he want to do that?”
Jean shrugged. “I don’t really care. But Yesmenia and I talked it over and we think it’d be a really good idea.”
Yesmenia was Yesmenia Alvarez, the president’s public message head.
Sharon grimaced. “Why?”
“We’re coming up on the first one hundred days and the boss isn’t happy with what he’s been able to do so far.” Jean balanced one of her feet on the tiny little spike of her red shoe. “The one area where he’s really been gaining ground is the foreign relations. If we can get a story out there about that, well, that might give his first one hundred some oomph.”
Sharon sighed. “So why doesn’t Epstein talk with Dan?”
“He has, but he wants to talk to you. You want me to have Allen set it up with Julie?”
“Great. This afternoon okay?”
“Already?” Sharon gulped.
Jean started out. “Max’s deadline is tomorrow. Trust me, you want to accommodate that.”
Sharon sighed again and went back to her document, only to be interrupted again a few minutes later when Julie emailed her that she had a lunchtime interview with Max Epstein at a small bistro two blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Sharon made a point of being on time and was somewhat pleasantly surprised to see Max at the restaurant waiting for her. It was a small place, crowded with tables, and red vinyl-covered booths along the walls. Max had secured one against the lunch rush. He got up as she approached the table, no mean feat, given the booth, and remained standing until she was seated.
“They do an incredible salmon here,” Max told Sharon as he handed her a menu.
“Hmm.” Sharon browsed, one eye on Max to see what he was up to.
The waiter approached and Sharon asked for separate checks.
“I can put this on the expense account,” Max offered.
“No can do,” said Sharon. “Too close to a conflict of interest for me.”
The waiter sighed as Sharon ordered steak, salad and fries, and an iced tea. Max ordered salmon. As the waiter left, Max pulled out his voice recorder. Sharon sighed.
“I guess my order was on the record,” she said.
Max shrugged. “Not if you don’t want it to be. I can cut some slack on that one.”
“I don’t know if it matters. I probably would have ordered the same thing, anyway.”
“Shall we start at the beginning?” Max smiled. “What got you interested in world affairs?”
He led her through most of her work history, pausing only when the waiter came with their food. Sharon had to concede that Max had done his homework.
“As I understand it, you and one of your last bosses had something going,” Max finally asked.
“Oh, so that’s it?” Sharon rolled her eyes. “You lull me into a false sense of security and pull this?”
Max grinned. “Are you saying you don’t want to answer?”
“Nah.” Sharon speared a french fry. “We kept things discreet, for obvious reasons, but it wasn’t that big a deal. We still worked together for a while after we broke up.”
“So he wasn’t the reason you left the corporate world for the public sector?” Max grinned.
Sharon shrugged. “He may have been, but not for the reason you might think. He wanted a stay-at-home wife and kids, and I didn’t want to be that kind of wife. I was tempted to try it, but I realized pretty quickly that it was more that I was getting a little burnt out on the corporate thing. I had always wanted to go into public service and the diplomatic corps, anyway. So maybe the break up started the nudge that got me here. There were other things, too.”
“Um,” Sharon hesitated. “We almost lost my sister a year and a half ago, and it just reminded me that it was probably time to go after what I really wanted.”
“And what do you really want?”
“Eventually? Maybe Secretary of State. Maybe just an ambassadorship. I don’t know. I’m really loving what I’m doing now.”
“It’s pure research, for one thing. I don’t have to worry about developing policy. And I do get to work my diplomatic chops every so often, but it’s not my primary function, and that’s refreshing.”
“What about the reports this morning out of North Korea that the U.S is favoring South Korea, based on last night’s reception?”
Sharon smiled. “Can’t comment.” She suddenly shifted at the soft buzzing in her purse. “Hold on.” She looked at her Blackberry and grinned. “And would you believe, it looks like I know how we’re going to handle those reports.”
“Still can’t comment. Have to get the boss to clear it, first. And Dan. I mean Secretary Friedman.”
“Speaking of your boss, all the talk today is how good you two looked together last night.”
Sharon rolled her eyes, then glared at Max. “Let’s not get started with that. I have no interest in a relationship with the man. I mean, we’re friends. He’s a really nice person. But I’d have to be nuts.”
“What do you mean, why? Complete loss of privacy, for starters. I’ll stay in the background, thank you.”
Max looked at her, pondering. “So you’re a free agent.”
“Don’t get too excited. I’ve heard about you.”
“Yeah.” Max suddenly sighed. “But let’s get back to your preference for the background, as you say, is that related to your brother’s fame?”
Sharon grimaced. “I was afraid you were going to ask about him.”
“I’m more asking about why you prefer the background.” Max smiled encouragingly.
“I suppose that’s legit. And, yeah, I have seen the dark side of fame. But it’s not just Michael. It’s what happens with the president, himself. I mean, the poor guy can’t even go out to get a beer with his co-workers after work. A lot of the ways you and I move around and take for granted that we can do, he can’t. That is not my idea of a way to live.”
Max nodded. He asked a couple more questions about Sharon’s personal life, but it was more in the sense of her history and what got her interested in world affairs. As Sharon got up to go, he gave her his card.
Back at the White House, Sharon found that the president wanted to go over the previous night’s party as well as updates on a potential trip that summer. She checked in with Kent, found the president had a few free minutes right then, so she gathered up her laptop and Blackberry and hurried over to the Oval Office.
“Good news,” she announced after being admitted.
Mark looked up from the desk and smiled. “About what?”
“North Korea. My buddy at the university in Seoul got back to me while I was at lunch.”
“Is it even daylight there yet?”
Sharon quickly calculated. “It’s, what, one-thirty now? It’s about two-thirty in the morning there. Kim’s a hard-core night owl. He used to joke that we’d make a great couple except being in the same time zone would probably kill us. Anyway, he’s the poli sci/world affairs professor I told you about.”
“Right. So what’s the good news?” Mark glanced at his laptop.
“The North Koreans are just making noise about the favoritism. Katie called it dead-on. They have to complain to look good, but there is definitely interest in re-establishing relations with us.”
Mark smiled. “That is good news. Have you emailed Dan yet?”
“Not yet.” Sharon opened the lid to her laptop. “I’d just got in when I got your note and figured you’d want to hear it first, anyway.”
“Got in? Oh, that’s right. Didn’t you have some interview or something?”
Sharon rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Apparently, Max Epstein thinks our world affairs policy would make a good feature.”
“It would.” Mark sighed. “Isn’t he that reporter with the bad rep regarding women?”
“Let me guess, you’ve been talking to Augie.” Sharon kept her eyes on her screen, her fingers flying over her keyboard as she wrote her email.
“He called me when he heard about it from Jean.”
“It’s no big deal. Max behaved himself. Asked some good questions, too. We’ll see how the story turns out.”
Mark tried not to glare as Sharon continued working on her email. After all, it was only one interview and it wasn’t as though Sharon was dating the guy. And even if she was, it wasn’t like she was going to be dating Mark, except at working functions, a thought that thoroughly depressed him. Except that, all of a sudden, Sharon was asking him something about an upcoming trip to Mexico. Mark shoved his depressing thoughts aside and forced himself to focus on something besides Sharon and dating and not dating.
“Are you all right?” Sharon asked suddenly.
“Yeah. Fine.” Mark shifted uncomfortably.
“You sure?” Sharon looked him over critically. “You don’t look fine.”
“No. I’m okay.” Mark met Sharon’s skeptical glare. “Look, I’m bugged about the whole Max Epstein thing. Not that you can’t handle it.”
“Excuse me, I most certainly can.”
Mark shrugged. “I guess Augie got under my skin. He really is freaking out. He doesn’t want to see you get your heart broken.”
Sharon laughed. “There is no way Max Epstein could possibly break my heart because I’m not going to fall in love with him.”
“And what makes you so damned sure you’re not?” Mark snapped, appalled at how angry he sounded. He met Sharon’s gaze. “Oh.”
“Yeah. Oh.” Sharon glared at her laptop. “Apparently, everyone’s talking about how good we looked together.”
“Jean mentioned that.” Mark swallowed. It was all over the Washington blogs and in the Post’s gossip column. “You do take a great picture.”
“Thanks. But there’s something insanely unsettling about being on the Metro and seeing yourself on the front page of the LifeStyle section.”
“No one bothered you, did they?”
“No. In fact, no one seemed to notice me, for which I am profoundly grateful.”
Sharon sat back on the office couch, looking deeply saddened. Mark sighed, feeling guilty and annoyed that he couldn’t sit down next to her and hold her close.
“Mr. President,” said Kent’s voice from the intercom. “Senator Halstead and the reps from the Moral Americans Caucus are here for their meeting.”
“Let me finish here with Ms. Wheatly,” Mark replied, shuddering. He looked at Sharon. “If you want, we can take our time. It’s not like this is a meeting I’m excited about.”
“But they can cause you an awful lot of trouble,” said Sharon, closing her laptop. “I’ve still got to finalize my thoughts on the African trip schedule as it is. I’ll finish the report and email it to you and Dan this afternoon.”
“Fine. And cc it to the rest of the Advisory Board, too. I’d like to get their input at tomorrow’s meeting.”
Sharon nodded and got up. The two looked at each other awkwardly for a moment, then Sharon left.
The meeting with the Moral Americans did little to improve Mark’s mood. He finally cut it short with a promise to think over their proposal and give them an answer the next day. Then, after several deep breaths and one Zen meditation exercise to calm himself down, he summoned Jean Bouyer and Gus Guerrero to the Oval Office. He was still trying to achieve some calm when they both arrived.
“We’ve got a problem,” he announced, after giving the two permission to take a seat in front of the desk.
Jean and Gus looked at each other.
“You mean a new one?” Jean asked. “’Cause I haven’t heard about any. You, Augie?”
Gus shook his head. “Just the usual nonsense.”
“My meeting just a few minutes ago,” Mark told them. “The one with the Moral Americans Caucus. It went well enough, however, let’s just say that their proposal has left me more than a little… nonplussed.”
“What did they want?” Gus asked.
“They want me to get married.” Mark got up and started pacing. “To a woman, of course. Even offered me four different candidates.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding!” snapped Jean.
“I think I know where this is going,” Gus said, grimly. “Did they specify to a woman?”
“Oh, yes. They think that it will show my support for marriage and encourage others to get married.”
Gus sighed. “It will do that.”
“And if I don’t start making some moves along those lines, they are fully ready to start a campaign questioning my support for marriage and average Americans.”
“How long have they been gone?” Jean asked, immediately opening her laptop and scanning the screen.
“I put them off until Friday.” Mark rolled his eyes. “Big step, lots to think about, you know.”
“Could they have forgotten about the Friday news conference?” Gus asked.
“I’d be surprised if they had,” said Jean. “They may be narrow-minded asses, but they’re not stupid. At least, I don’t think they are.”
“They’re not,” said Gus. “Which means they fully expect you to turn them down. And also means they’re pushing you to the wall on the gay marriage thing.”
“I know.” Mark sighed. “And it’s not like there aren’t other issues to focus on instead of something that should be a gimme.”
“Be nice if it were,” sighed Gus.
Mark looked over at him. “I know. It’s just you won on the legislative side. You won judicially. There ain’t much I can do besides tell the Moral Americans to get over it, already.”
“Maybe that’s what you need to do,” Jean said, smiling. “I mean, don’t blow them off. You can’t afford to look too dismissive of their concerns. Better yet, promote marriage – for all Americans, not just the straight ones.”
Mark half-smiled. “You know, that might work.” He flopped into his desk chair. “It’s just the gall of it all – get married or we’re going to make your life miserable.”
“I’ll get right on the statement,” Jean said, almost getting up expectantly.
“Go ahead,” said Mark, remembering just in time that he should dismiss her.
Jean scooted out. Gus hung back, though not entirely for reasons of protocol.
“You okay, sir?” Gus asked. “It’s not like you to let this sort of thing get under your skin.”
Mark sighed. “Yeah. It’s just other things. Have you got anything else for me?”
“Nope. If I may?”
“Yeah.” Mark sighed as he watched Gus leave.
Mark knew it wasn’t like him to let things like the Moral Americans get under his skin. In fact, under normal circumstances, Mark would normally be laughing himself silly. Except that for the first time in a very long time, he was thinking he might actually like to get married. And he wasn’t sure which was more upsetting, the fact that he was thinking that way or that the woman he wanted was pretty much off-limits.
Or was she?
It was getting close to six-thirty when Sharon IM’d Jean about the North Koreans and heard back about the Moral Americans. Nor was she particularly surprised when, at right about the same time, a group IM from Mark came through asking if the PFZ was going to be open that night. Pretty much everyone else from the Board had other plans. So Sharon relented and invited Mark to come make dinner with her. Mark accepted, almost too quickly and the two went back and forth, debating menu items based on what they had and or Sharon could get.
Mark seemed almost cheerful as Sharon met him in the basement.
“I’ve got the broth and a portobello,” he told her, showing her the canvas bag he was holding. “And some semolina. Plus a kick-ass Tavel that if the domestic wine lobby knew I had, I’d be dead.”
“Great, I love French rosés,” said Sharon. She smiled then led the way up the stairs. “I’m pounding the pork cutlets now. I’ve got plenty of arugula for a salad, maybe with some tomatoes. And I found some butternut squash chunks in the fridge. If we nuke them, we could use that for the ravioli filling along with some of the portobello.”
“And I love the idea of just dropping them in the hot broth. I am starving.”
As they entered the kitchen, Mark put the bag on the counter.
“Well, you’d better get the pasta started then,” said Sharon. “That’s going to take the longest. I’ve got some herbed goat cheese and crackers. We can have that while the pasta is resting.”
Their conversation remained focused on putting the meal together, a hot chicken broth with squash and mushroom ravioli, arugula and tomato salad with artichoke hearts, and breaded pork cutlets piccata-style with broccoli.
“You seem to be in a better mood,” Sharon said, as they finished their meal.
“I think I am,” said Mark. “I’m sorry I got so grouchy this afternoon.” He sighed deeply. “I told you I could have ditched that meeting.”
“The Moral Americans?” Sharon chuckled. “Yeah, I heard about that.”
“Even Augie agreed, they’ve got a point about my marriage encouraging weddings.”
“That’s what, a six-billion-dollar industry?” Sharon smiled. “Could turn the economy around.”
Mark chuckled ruefully. “I don’t think that’s what they were after.”
“No. Really? But how is you getting married going to stop gay marriages?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea.” Mark toyed with his wine glass. “They talked about leading by example, and obviously assumed I’m straight.”
Sharon thought briefly about that one kiss. “I have reason to believe so.”
Mark smiled. “Yeah, I’m afraid I am.” He frowned. “The senator hinted that my not falling in line with their request might lead to rumors I’m gay. As if I’d be worried about people thinking that.”
“Nah. If I’m not going to judge a person based on their sexual orientation, why should I care if folks judge me that way? Problem is, you were right. The Moral Americans are just vocal enough to cause trouble in other ways, too. I don’t want to appease them, but I don’t want to blow them off, either.” Mark gazed off into space.
They were in the dining room, sitting at one end of the rather large table. It was a fairly large room with windows that looked out onto the street, covered with pull-down shades and gold velvet curtains. It was a more sedate version of Baroque opulence and Sharon knew that the cherry-wood table and breakfront were genuine Louise XV. She’d been with Carla on a trip to France when Carla had bought the pieces.
However, Mark’s attention was actually drawn to the chess set at the other end of the table.
“You play chess?” he asked, getting up and looking at the board.
“Yeah. I got that out this afternoon.” Sharon followed him to the end of the table. “Kim challenged me to a game earlier. I gave him the white.”
The queen’s white pawn was already moved ahead two spaces.
“That’s a bold move,” Mark said.
“Kim really likes playing his queen. He’s also really good at getting rank with his pawns.” Sharon looked at Mark. “Do you play?”
“A little. I’m not that good.”
“Neither am I,” Sharon sighed. “Kim usually whips me backwards and forwards. I think he just asks me to play to humor me. I’m going online tonight to see if I can figure out a strategy.”
Mark chuckled. “I’ve got one. Ape his moves. It’ll make him crazy.”
Sharon hesitated, but Mark made an impressive argument and the two found themselves hovering over Sharon’s laptop, searching chess sites and debating until Sharon suddenly yawned and Mark remembered that it was time to go. And both were surprised and relieved when there was no awkwardness at the basement door.
So the next day, in spite of questions about marriage and the Moral Americans, Mark was in a pretty good mood. He made his statement about supporting marriage for all Americans and re-iterated that it was, in fact, his support for marriage that was behind him still being single. He hadn’t met the right woman yet, nor was he in any position to do anything about it at that time, assuming he did meet the right woman. The press corps, most of whom saw little use in a story about a group who had lost several times over on every effort they had made to legislate their agenda, let the President off on the issue. And there were other issues of more moment.
By Max Epstein
Mai Lin Hu, the wife of South Korean Ambassador to the U.S. Jong Hu, was significantly impressed when President Jerguessen wished her well on her birthday last Wednesday at the reception the South Korean embassy held in the president’s honor.
Activist Gloria Park was amazed that not only did President Jerguessen know who she was, he was able to ask her knowledgeable questions regarding her issue – adoption fraud in African countries.
“I saw him refer to his iPhone a couple times,” Park said. “But he was checking his facts. That he even knew to do that – wow.”
What Park did not realize is that just prior to her conversation with the president, he had received an instant message from World Affairs Advisor Sharon Wheatly, who had presumably pointed out Park and made sure her boss knew he wanted to talk to her.
It was an interesting dance that night. The president checking his iPhone, then glancing at Wheatly. She would glance in the direction of someone else. Or she would check her Blackberry and he’d glance in the direction of another. Seconds later, he was checking his iPhone.
Wheatly later conceded that she was, indeed, providing links and other information to the president as various people at the party talked to the president.
“It’s my job,” she explained. “It’s what I do. I provide critical background information to the president so that he can make appropriate and intelligent decisions.”
But according to Secretary Daniel Freedman, Wheatly’s job is a key part of President Jerguessen’s efforts to rebuild this country’s relations with other nations.
“She’s our secret weapon,” Freedman said. “Okay, maybe not so secret. But Sharon is a master at keeping track of people and issues. Mrs. Hu was blown away that the president knew that it was her birthday. That was Sharon who found that out. And that may sound trivial, but something as simple as a ‘happy birthday’ at the right time can go a long way toward building the right kinds of relations we need in the world right now.”
You bitch. You may think you have him all wrapped up with a nice pretty bow. It doesn’t matter who you’ve got snowed, I know you for who you are. Bitch.