Mark made a point of signing the legislation at a luncheon in the White House mess. Sharon found a way to surreptitiously squeeze his hand afterward.
That Friday, Matt called his uncle and told him that he’d be spending the weekend at school so that he and his friends could attend a dance the school was putting on that Saturday night.
“You guys are going to a dance?” Mark asked, mildly surprised.
“Yeah,” Matt said without a lot of enthusiasm. “Jodi’s mom was getting worried about her not doing fun, normal, stuff. She doesn’t want Jodi to miss out on anything. So, Rebecca decided we needed to stretch ourselves and do something different, for once. And since anybody who doesn’t go to St. Ignatius or Holy Name of Mary has to have a date to get in, Rebecca has partnered us all up to get the girls in.”
“I see,” said Mark. “And may I ask who you’ll be bringing?”
“You don’t sound that thrilled about it.”
“I’m fine.” Matt sighed. “Okay, I’m not. I mean, I want to be with her. But a dance. That’s all that romance stuff and Tiffany and I aren’t ready for that. We like each other and all. It’s just that we don’t want to get into that kind of trouble.”
Mark tried not to laugh. “It’s okay. You can have a girlfriend if you want.”
“No! It’s not that.” Matt’s voice grew anguished. “It’s… Really embarrassing.”
“Ah. Things got a little physically intense between you.”
“Like it hasn’t happened to me? And I didn’t even like the girl that much.”
“I don’t want to hear this.”
“Sorry.” Mark sighed. “I get it. Okay? Sex is a big step. You don’t want to be careless with it. I appreciate that you and Tiffany are being responsible and mature about it, even when you don’t want to be.”
“Really don’t want to be,” Matt grumbled.
“Well, Matt, let’s put it this way. I think you’re better off waiting. You think you’re better off waiting and so does Tiffany.”
“Yeah. She’s got statistics, too.”
“That’s the important thing. But if you do slip, it’s not the end of the world. It will probably make your relationship a lot harder. I want to emphasize that. Feeling guilty will kill a relationship faster than anything else I know. So, if anything happens, I do hope you’ll come to me. It’s important.”
“Sure, Uncle Mark.” Matt sighed again. “And, thanks. I was afraid you were going to get mad at me.”
“Why would I get mad at you for being honest about your feelings and how hard it is to deal with some of this?”
“I don’t know. You’re so down on objectifying women.”
Mark had to laugh. “Matt, there’s a world of difference between treating a woman as an object for the sole purpose of gratifying your hornies, and wanting to make love to someone you care deeply about.”
“How do you tell?”
“You wait. Seriously, Matt, it is hard to tell. Between your hormones on overdrive and your lack of life experience, you don’t know what’s going on. And that’s the best reason of all to wait.”
“I’m not an idiot.”
“No. You’re a very intelligent young man. In fact, you’re smart enough to know you’re in over your head and instead of diving right in anyway like your peers, you’re not. That’s why I’m proud of you. Now, go have fun at your dance, pack some condoms just in case, and stay out of trouble.”
“Out of trouble,” Matt growled, but Mark could hear the humor in his voice. “Thanks a lot, Uncle Mark.” He paused. “Actually, I really mean that.”
“Any time, Matt.”
Mark hung up. He had a long list of briefings to read, not to mention some new legislation to go over. He also had a text from June that she was going to spend the next few days in California and would go straight from there to their father’s place in Minnesota where she and Mark would be celebrating Thanksgiving.
So, Mark sent a text to Sharon and was thrilled with the response. That evening, he had a cocktail party at the Armenian embassy, and Sharon had gotten assigned to go as his date.
“We’ve pretty much got the whole weekend,” Mark told Sharon on the way to the embassy.
“That sounds wonderful,” Sharon said. “Do you want to stay at my place?”
“Sounds good.” Mark grinned. “I do have to publicly leave the White House for church on Sunday. But you can stay there. I told Solly I’ll be cooking for myself all weekend and insisted that she take some time off. The rest of the staff shouldn’t notice or care.”
“That sounds great. But I’ve got to find some time to put together some rum cakes for Thanksgiving at my aunt’s place. It’s the only thing I can think of that’s homemade that I can take with me from the office.”
“So, we spend tonight and tomorrow during the day at your place, then head over to the White House Saturday evening.”
“It’s a plan.” Sharon grinned. “I’ve even got a clean change of clothing for you over at my place.”
Mark’s eyebrows rose. “Really.”
“Riff Butler is a very nice and thorough gentleman.”
The next morning, Sharon and Mark were up and baking, first a bread pudding for their breakfast, then the rum cakes. As they paused to get one in the oven, Sharon’s phone rang. She returned a few minutes later.
“It was Jodi,” Sharon said. “Just checking in to ask what she should wear to the dance tonight.”
Mark couldn’t help laughing. “I can’t believe they’re going. That whole crew is so bent on not doing what the other kids are doing.”
“I know.” Sharon checked the timer on the oven. “Jodi sounded pretty excited to be going. I was surprised because she really hates crowds and enforced socializing. Apparently, she’s decided it will be an interesting venture as a sociology experiment, and even managed to set up potential extra credit with one of her teachers.”
That made Mark laugh even louder. Sharon shrugged and gathered the mixing bowls they’d used.
“I don’t think that’s what’s really going on,” Sharon said.
Mark put the flour away. “Then what is?”
“I think Jodi has realized that she needs to be a little more social and is doing what she can to make that more comfortable, I guess. It’s like doing the assistant thing for you. She’s pushing herself.”
“In a good way, it seems,” Mark said.
“Yeah.” Sharon suddenly sighed as she put the bowls in the sink.
Mark looked at her. “Something wrong?”
Sharon winced. “Just some really bad memories. I was just about Jodi’s age when my brother’s video came out.”
“Hard Town Saturday Night. It’s the tune that made him famous. But at the time, there wasn’t any money and so I played the young hooker trying to get off the streets. I was not even fifteen that September when it released.” She shuddered.
“It’s a beautiful video.”
“I have no problems with the work, itself.” Sharon stared at the water filling the sink. “It’s what happened to me. I’m starting my sophomore year of high school here in the States, and the video was all over, which was great, except for how the boys at my school saw it. And me.”
Mark nodded. “They saw typecasting.”
“Yep. And made my life hell.” Sharon shut off the water and began scrubbing.
“Which explains the whole not wanting to be famous thing.”
“As I have said repeatedly, I’ve had my share of it and do not want any more.”
Mark looked at her. “Yeah. You have hinted at something like that.”
Sharon sighed again and looked at him. “I probably should have been more explicit about that earlier on. But like that first night out at the South Korean embassy. Remember how you caught me that I’m kind of okay with the attention? And I am. Who wouldn’t be? But what I didn’t say was that every time it happens, I also get a little panicky. Will it be like the last time?”
Mark picked up a towel and started drying a bowl. “You know, you are a full-grown woman now. Even if certain guys forget that they’re not in high school anymore, you’re better able to deal with that kind of nonsense.”
“That’s what I keep telling myself.” Sharon shook her head. “But that’s the biggest reason I’m not ready for us to go public.” She shuddered. “All the ridiculous things people judge you for and prying into your sex life. That’s the reason I worry about getting all caught up in it. I just want to get dressed in the morning without worrying about what it will do to your numbers if I pick the wrong outfit.”
“I’m serious!” Sharon groaned.
“I know.” Mark ducked and got control of himself. “I was just remembering one time during the primary season, I lost two percentage points because I picked out the wrong tie. My entire staff nearly melted down.”
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
“Yeah, but it was also right before I pulled ahead of the pack and two percentage points were a big thing.”
“Still, making all your life decisions based on the whims of the American public is no way to live.”
“Of course, it isn’t. That’s why I don’t. If you do, you’ll make yourself crazy in record time. As I pointed out to my staff, it was just a tie and it ultimately didn’t make any difference. That’s one thing I learned when I first got to the House. I don’t think I’d been there a month. I was freaking out about my polling numbers and Leora Pittman, God rest her, pulled me aside and told me in no uncertain terms that if I let my day-to-day numbers get to me, all I was going to do was worry all the time and pander to everyone, which would make me of no use to anybody. Sooner or later, I was going to have to make an unpopular choice, and I’d be up a creek. And, damned if she wasn’t right. You can always spot the folks obsessing over their numbers. Not to mention, being that worried about your numbers makes you insanely easy to manipulate.” Mark shrugged and put the bowl away.
“But how do you deal with all the criticism?” Sharon frowned as she began wiping out the sink.
“You look at it and take it for what it is,” Mark said. “It’s an opinion, usually expressed by someone who doesn’t know you directly and has no clue who you really are. So, it can’t be personal. Look at all the cheap shots I’ve taken over Ginger Peachy and Kickie Poo. In some respects, it is on the legit side, since they are two tiny little dogs with ridiculous names. But I didn’t name them and I love my little yes men, and that’s all there is to it. They aren’t going to cost me an election, and if they become a part of the conversation that way, then it’s symptomatic of a larger problem, and that I will have to look at. But that’s a different issue than straight up criticism of my personal life or of who I am.”
“I wish I could be that laid back out it.”
Mark pulled her close. “You’ve just had some bad experiences, that’s all. And since we’re not going to public any time soon, it’s a moot point, anyway.”
He kissed the top of her head. “And if we do go public, it’s not like you’re going to have to deal with everything on your own, you know. I’ll be here. I promise.”
Sharon sniffed and smiled. “Thanks.”
Their lips met, the tenderness growing and then the passion.
The music was loud, the gym darkened, and Jodi Wheatly sat in the bleachers next to her best friend and almost sister Tiffany Sheppledorf wondering if it was too early to leave.
“This band sucks,” Tiffany announced over the noise.
“Really sucks,” Jodi said. “Is that why you and Matt aren’t dancing?”
Tiffany shook her head with disdain. “We’re being sensible.”
“Sensible!” Tiffany made a face. “Dancing is too romantic. Matt’s afraid of what will happen if we… You know. He’s afraid we’ll get caught and it will hurt his uncle.”
Beneath them, a teacher began yelling at someone and a girl screamed. Jodi couldn’t make out what was being said, but she could guess.
“You guys are probably going to blow it at some point,” Jodi yelled.
“I promised my mom I’d wait ‘til college,” Tiffany yelled back. “It’s the most intelligent thing she’s ever said to me.”
“Yeah, but you and Matt are miserable.”
Tiffany winced. “Not really. Just uncomfortable.”
DeShawn Colley climbed up the bleachers. “That band really sucks, man. Is it too early to leave?”
Jodi looked at her watch. “It’s barely nine. We haven’t even been here an hour.”
“Oh, come on,” DeShawn groaned. “We could be eating pizza somewhere or streaming movies at the Coopers’.”
Tiffany nudged him. “Way to invite yourself over.”
“I fully planned to ask first,” DeShawn said, nudging back. “I was merely offering the idea as an alternative to getting our ears blown out by this crap attempt at music.”
Jodi started tapping her phone’s screen. “I’ll take a poll. Opinions on the band?”
Seconds after the text went out, the phone buzzed repeatedly as the rest of the group weighed in.
“It’s the unanimous consensus that the band seriously sucks,” Jodi told DeShawn and Tiffany. “Tony says we’ve gathered sufficient data to convince my mom that we are not missing out when we skip traditional teen activities.”
“Oh, how stupid do you have to be?” Rebecca Cooper gasped as she walked across the bleachers. “There’s at least five couples under here doing the humpty. Do they seriously think they’re not going to get caught?”
“They’re obviously not thinking,” Tiffany groaned with a quick glance Jodi’s way.
Jodi flashed her phone. “Both Paul and Matt say that someone spiked the punch and Kira’s spotted at least twelve different bottles going around.”
“And they’ve got the breathalyzers set up in the foyer.” Rebecca shook her head. “Jodi, I think we can safely convince your mom that you are not missing out by skipping school dances.”
“Except maybe prom,” DeShawn said. “I know my mom is going to want that picture.”
Rebecca snorted. “We’ll find some way make up our own. There is nothing romantic about listening to bad music while our peers are acting like idiots, and prom is only going to make things worse.”
Karsa lightly ran up the bleachers.
“You know,” she said, her German accent getting stronger as she raised her voice over the noise. “If you Americans did not have such ridiculous laws about alcohol, it would not be so funny to put it in the punch, I would bet.”
Rebecca rolled her eyes. “I bet they’d find other ways to get into trouble.”
“Oh, yeah.” Karsa shrugged. “That is why I didn’t want to come tonight.”
“Well, Mom says we can go over there,” Rebecca said. “She’ll order the pizza and wings as soon as we let her know.”
“All right!” DeShawn flashed Tiffany a smug grin.
“Wait,” Rebecca commanded. “What about Jodi? She’s why we’re here tonight.”
“I didn’t ask you guys to come,” Jodi groaned. “That was your idea, Becca.”
Rebecca rolled her eyes. “So? Can we tell your mom we’re not missing out?”
“We could have told her that without coming.” Jodi got up. “Let’s get out of here.”
She turned to look at Tiffany. The Cooper’s TV room was a relatively safe venue for her and Matt. No place to be alone, especially since there was a whole crew of friends who would remark on it. What worried Jodi was that Tiffany looked afraid that she and Matt mind find a way.