Christmas week is the absolute worst time of the year to go to Paris. It’s when everyone in France visits Paris, meaning that every major museum, church and restaurant in the city is stuffed with people. And not just people: French people. The rudest people on earth.
Of course, Paris being Paris, it doesn’t matter. It certainly didn’t matter to Charlotte and me, back in our favorite hotel, the Hotel des Deux Îles on the Île-St.-Louis, dead in the center of Paris. For us, mobs or no, it was heaven.
Ignoring the crowds, we spent our time strolling the city streets, up the Champs Elysées for some serious window shopping, through the Marais for some serious shopping shopping, and into pretty much any restaurant we wanted for quiet dinners, an hour earlier than any decent Frenchman would have found himself eating but just the right time for us – it was one of those rare times when it paid to be the ugly American.
We’d left Washington right after the Conference, and would be heading back only to pack. It was time to move on; Charlotte had been right all along. We didn’t know where, we didn’t know what we’d end up doing. It was just time to move on.
* * *
It had taken another hour-and-a-half for the Conference to wind up, as the members crossed all the i’s and dotted the t’s on their agreement. Glancing at my cell phone, I saw that we were approaching 6:15, about the earliest I thought that I could call Charlotte.
Stretching as I stood, I looked around the room at the small number of us left. Committee members were heading for the exits, leaving the few remaining staffers behind to corral their files and folders. The Shaddock Mills kid was still there, observant to the end, unaware that he’d missed the amendment he’d been sent to watch for. There were no other lobbyists in the room that I could see, and only two or three Administration representatives left. Even most of the staffers were gone, especially those whose members had checked out early in the night. My new best friend on the Republican right, Kenny Thurgood, was still there, smiling broadly in the throes of his first big win; he and his boss looked as if they could barely restrain themselves from an enormous ‘high five.’
It seemed almost peaceful after the craziness of the last few hours.
Walking over to Kenny, I shook his hand. At this point, I didn’t care about being seen with him. “Don’t forget – from here on out, you have to keep an eye on that amendment, and you have to keep an eye on my UAE MNNA amendment.” That’s what I had gotten from Walston in exchange for helping him to a ‘great victory’ in Conference: he would make sure the UAE amendment was left alone as the bill moved forward.
Kenny nodded and shook my hand strongly. “Absolutely. That amendment is locked in.”
I smiled. As he turned away, heading for the door, I flipped open my phone and speed-dialed Charlotte. The line rang three times.
Good, I thought; I’ve woken her. “Hi, Sweetie. It’s me. I’m not home.”
“Hmmmmm. No.” There was a pause as she woke herself up. I could hear her take a deep breath. “Mmmm. You’re not home.”
“Conference just ended, and I’m going to take some of the people out to breakfast. So I probably won’t get home about 10:00.”
“Okay.” It was her little tiny voice, the squeaky one she had right after waking.
“Can you do me a favor?”
“Hunh?” That was a little more alert, a little more aware. Now she would wake up. I could almost see her, closing her eyes tight, forcing herself to focus. “What?”
“We’re leaving. Don’t know where we’re going, don’t know what we’re going to do, we’re just leaving.” I paused, to let it sink in. “We’ve got the money, and we need to go. It’s time.”
“Are you okay?”
I laughed, to myself mostly.
“Better than I’ve been in a long, long time.”
* * *
With all I’d been through, getting out of town was going to be the easy part. I’d gone to Michael late the afternoon following the Conference, after snagging a few hours’ sleep at home. The Conference Report was well on its way to being incorporated into the massive 80 kajillion dollar everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-end-of-the-year omnibus bill and there was nothing anyone could do about it. That omnibus wouldn’t actually be moving for days, and there would be moments for slipping this or that into or out of it; but that was the beauty of having the head of the House Republican Conference carry the amendment, because when he put something in a bill, it stayed.
I even got to break the news to Michael about what I’d done – no one else had the courage to call him up and, from the fact that Harry wasn’t calling me up every two seconds, no one at Shaddock Mills had found it yet either.
Michael took it relatively well, screaming at me for only about half-an-hour or so, maybe 45 minutes, his face a bright, fire-engine kind of red that somehow didn’t pop an aneurism or send his heart shooting out of his eyeballs. I took it about as well as I’d taken the UAE Ambassador’s rant about our MNNA amendment, with the only difference being a serious twinge of sadness, knowing that this was the last time I’d ever get yelled at like this and thinking that, years from this moment, when I reminisced, this was one of the moments I would remember most clearly from my many wonderful years with him.
Looking back, though, I’ve realized that his heart wasn’t in it. Maybe because of the time we’d spent together, maybe because he knew I’d protected him by having Kenny Thurgood and House Republican Conference Chair watching over our UAE amendment. Maybe he still liked me as much as Charlotte said he did. Whatever it was, while he needed to yell at me to make sure everyone else in the company knew never, ever to try a trick like that on him again, I know now he was playacting. Loudly, but playacting.
In the end, Michael and I made a simple deal: he gave me the $72,000 he’d promised me off the Dungan contract, and I disappeared from Washington, leaving him to tell the story however he wanted.
Charlotte quit her job the same day, giving her miserable boss the 2-hour notice he deserved, once she was certain I’d signed the deal with Michael. We had nothing to go back to, other than packing up our house and shipping the stuff off somewhere.
Paris was our first stop, and it had been just a couple of days on the ground when we found ourselves at our favorite little café on the northwestern corner of the Île-St.-Louis, splitting a Croque Monsieur while admiring the flying buttresses of Nôtre-Dame. We still needed to decide how long to stay in Europe, how much of that $72K to piss away before deciding what to do next. I wasn’t in any hurry, for I had a lot to catch up on, and a lot of Charlotte to reconnect with. We just needed some time, I’d told myself.
I knew that was a lie, the last one I was still allowing myself. It would take years to overcome everything I’d been and done. But at least I’d finally given myself the chance.
“So, my love,” I said, reaching over the ubiquitous oil-and-vinegar tray to snag a few more frites off her plate, “you think there’s any chance of finding a Washington Post anywhere in this godforsaken burg?”
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