When I arrived at the White House the President was our shared responsibility, beyond also being the adjective attached to everything in the building. The Rutland administration. The Rutland agenda. The Rutland luncheon. He was the word in every fifth sentence, a ubiquitous stamped signature, a photograph over the royal-blue carpet on the way to the staff entrance. Under normal circumstances he would never even have known my name, but I unwittingly entered the White House at a time when we collectively sidestepped normal as a nation.
As a Vassar poli-sci major, my ambition had been for a job in urban development—before my scope rapidly widened to include anything without a name tag. My wealthier classmates had staved off the demoralizing hunt with grad school applications, but my debt already verged on not-get-out-of-bed paralyzing, so I applied for summer internships, the longest of long shots being for the White House. As much as I couldn’t afford it, I prayed the unsalaried credential might be the key line item to differentiate my résumé. I’d heard that was especially true at Starbucks.
I’ll never know for certain, but I assume it was the recommendation from Lena’s mom, Gail, a major political fundraiser, that tipped the scales. Whatever it was, one day I was resigned to moving home and picking up shifts at Chili’s, and the next I was sprung via Amtrak from Poughkeepsie to the West Wing.
I was assigned to the Department of Scheduling and Advance. Our mandate—which became my word of the day: my mandate, his mandate, their mandate—was to ensure that the President, the First Lady, and the traveling circus that is the press corps all got where they were supposed to go, be it New Delhi or Foggy Bottom.
The day this story starts, really starts, began with an absolutely insane marathon-length meeting. I’d been there only three weeks and was still getting used to the formalities; that morning the paid employees got to sit in cushy ergonomic swivel chairs around the conference table, while the junior staffers camped on the hard folding chairs behind them. And then there was us, the interns, standing pressed against the wall, with our practiced look of aggressive gratitude. I was wearing the black pumps I’d gotten at DSW that I thought epitomized the job, but of course were knockoffs of knockoffs and could only have been comfortable if I’d had Barbie feet. We’d been standing for maybe two hours by this point and I decided to surreptitiously slip a foot out and rest it on the floor.
To my right, Perfect Brooke sighed in slicing disapproval. If the interns had broken into a dance routine, Perfect Brooke would have led it. It would be the most boring dance routine you’ve ever sat through, but the show would be a hit anyway because that’s how Brooke’s life worked.
I’d naively thought this was going to be like the first days of college, where you form a ragtag clique with some kids on your dorm floor and go to the cafeteria together. Not that you’d hit it off with everyone, but usually there’d be at least one keeper and eventually you’d build a posse. After growing up just outside Chicago, being in a city like D.C. felt energizingly familiar, but my casual suggestions to Yelp a cool bar were met with suspicion. There was this slim hope hovering in the air that someone might be offered a permanent position at the end of the ten weeks, and my fellow interns were ready to club each other with their binders to get one. (It was basically a dowdily dressed version of the Hunger Games.) So, from what I could tell, the other interns went back to their Airbnb sublets, rubbed themselves with the Financial Times, and listened to NPR until they climaxed.
Leaving me to subsist on a constant stream of texts from my college friends, who’d scattered to take refuge in their C and D plans, while I spent way too much time in my own head. Hence, as the meeting entered its third hour, I was focused on my feet, on a potential job I was waiting to hear about, on Perfect Brooke’s derision—oh, and that I needed to pee. Badly.
Just to remind you, Congress was digging in against passing the President’s budget because they were still pissy about losing the election four years earlier. So America had been operating for months on a “continuing resolution,” not dissimilar, I thought, to the credit card making it possible for me to be there. It was set to expire in two days if his demands for social service funding weren’t met, which would effectively bring the government to a screeching halt.
A President and First Lady’s schedules are need-a-new-definition-for-it tight on a normal day, so the prospect of being up to a week behind had thrown us all into a wrestling match with the space-time continuum. “What are we telling the Prime Minister?” one of the staffers, whose name I could never remember, asked insistently as he squinted at the dry-erase board. It was a heated land grab for every minute—and it had come down to a standoff over Uruguay.
“What are we telling the Prime Minister?” the department head, Margaret, repeated blankly, a marker hanging limply at her side, the aroma of which was making all of us ever so slightly high.
“Yes,” the staffer repeated. “Am I removing POTUS from the teachers’ union on June twenty-second so they can meet?”
“The teachers’ union luncheon,” another staffer growled, tugging at his loosened tie, “is attended by four hundred members. Citizens of the United States. Registered voters. It cannot be moved for bullshit face time with Uruguay. Stop asking, Gerry.”
I reminded myself that Bushy Eyebrows was Gerry.
“Great!” Gerry threw up his arms, flashing dampened Oxford pits to the room. “I’ll just tell the Prime Minister of Uruguay that Chris thinks his country is bullshit.”
“It’s an election year, Gerry,” Margaret, whom I’d come to regard as imperturbable, reminded him with straining calm. But, capitulating, she put out a hand surgeon-style and the staffer closest gave her a fresh napkin to replace the saturated eraser. She wiped out the work of the last hour, eliciting frantic keyboard taps from those who’d yet to finish their transcription and a groan from everyone else. Except me; I was savoring a tiny prickle of pride because I’d brought that napkin. That napkin had no idea when it was stuffed in the metal dispenser at Capitol Bakery that morning that it was destined for greatness. I had grabbed a stack when I abandoned the coffee I was about to treat myself to in favor of two dozen oven-fresh sticky buns, which I ran in to work in hopes of making the day feel a little less cage-matchy—only to find the meeting that had been threatening for days was kicking off. So my buns were congealing into hardened globs in the kitchenette, but my napkins were there—they were helping.
“Okay. Potential government furlough scenario. Starting back at day one.” Really? Surely I couldn’t be the only one who had to chug a liter of water after commuting in the 95-degree heat. There had to be others desperate for a bathroom break.
The D.C. humidity and I were introduced when I stepped off the train with my life folded into two bulging suitcases. It’s what floating in the Dead Sea might feel like—if instead of floating you were trying to walk to the opposite shore. With luggage. It’s not as if Chicago doesn’t have heat waves, but at least there the lake air keeps things moving. In grade school we learned the capital was born on swampland, but hoofing it in your one Ann Taylor Loft suit is something else entirely. I spent a full five minutes a day admiring that the founding folks didn’t just say fuck it. Not that it wasn’t an enormous privilege just to be able to stand against that wall. It was. Huge. It was just hard to keep the wide-eyed expression of appreciation in place when one had to pee oh so badly. Brooke was probably wearing a catheter.
“Don’t you have to pee?” I whispered to Brooke.
She shot me another disapproving look. In retrospect, it would have taken more than a sticky bun to win over Brooke. Maybe if I’d spiked it with something—Xanax? Celexa? What’s the one that makes you a nice person?
I chewed the inside of my mouth and shifted my attention from the web of abdominal pain to the job offer I’d been waiting on from the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, an email that could already have been on the phone I had to leave at my desk. It was possible, as I stood there, that I already possessed an actual job with health insurance and everything. Which meant a place with Lena in L.A. And a paycheck. I was going to kiss that check and make a copy, frame that, and then cash the check and buy myself a proper bottle of wine.
Gail’s pied-à-terre, which I was staying in, with its White House view and uniformed doormen, was full of proper bottles of wine. The kind sommeliers study. I perpetually felt like I was failing it when I sat on its custom carpet and played omgpop or reheated a frozen burrito in its chef-grade oven. Weeks prior, I could have thrown back my shower curtain to find seriously anything—a hook-up, a moonshine contraption, a performance art rehearsal. Now I knew what awaited me—a wall of showerheads I couldn’t figure out and a shelf of Chanel products for the rare occasions when Gail swung through. I should explain that Gail still credits me with saving Lena’s life when Health Services misdiagnosed her appendicitis sophomore year. Lena’s never been entirely sure whether Gail was more thankful that I got her to St. Francis in time or that I took notes for all her classes.
Margaret threw her hands up. “We’re now just repeating options we ruled out an hour ago.” No one denied it. “Okay, lunch break.” I attempted the most dignified version of scrambling over everyone I could muster.
Peeing crossed off, I swung by the kitchen to reheat my goodwill tour. “Pecan bun?” I pimped, and a passing staffer nabbed one. “Thanks,” he said, blowing the heat off as he chewed. I held one out to Brooke, but she looked as if I’d taken it to the bathroom with me.
“Allergic to nuts?” I determinedly offered her the opportunity to soften her rudeness.
“No.” She covered the papers she’d just started to work from as if I might have wanted to filch her tedious assignment over my own tedious assignment.
“Oh my God, I’m so hungry I could eat your brain zombie-style. Seriously, cut your head open with this pen so I can eat it.” A slight brunette appeared, arms full, carrying a massive patent-leather tote she could easily have climbed inside of. She dropped her iPad and binder on Brooke’s desk to grab a bun as I took in her statement bangs, python-print wrap dress, and open-toed wedges. Definitely not one of ours. “It’s just wrong that these things have, like, a stick of butter in them.”
“A stick?” I asked. “No. Maybe half.” She wasn’t much older than us.
“Two halves,” she said as a man in a tight suit approached us and she scooped up her things with her forearms, licking a caramel string off her finger.
“Rachelle.” He literally snapped for her.
“Thank you,” she said to me. “You’re a genius. An evil genius.” I watched her leave, feeling like I’d just missed the last van pulling out for senior week.
Brooke picked up her brown leather bag. “Do you want to come?” she asked with a resignation that implied I was clinging to her ankles.
But maybe this was the moment. Maybe a friendship was about to form. Maybe outside this building Brooke became someone else entirely. “Uh, sure.”
I followed her brisk stride while I fruitlessly checked emails on my phone. I told myself it was okay. It was barely past ten on the West Coast; plenty of day left there to hire me.
I asked Brooke if she knew who Rachelle was here with.
“Some PR group getting footage for the campaign,” she answered as she walked.
“Funny, the thing she said about eating my brain,” I offered.
“I can see why you’d think so.”
Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me . . . “So, where are we going?”
“To buy lunch.”
“I have a peanut butter sandwich in my purse.”
She didn’t respond as we exited into the flattening heat. Everyone had initially assumed from Gail’s address that I was a fellow trust-funder, but the logo on my dad’s polo was definitely not a pony. As I was unable to share a favorite Hampton, memories of trips to Europe, or any opinion on my mother’s personal shopper’s taste, it became rapidly apparent we wouldn’t be exchanging friendship bracelets.
“Gross,” Brooke muttered, pulling her starched blouse away from her chest. I realized she was wearing The Shirt. It had an extra button between the cleavage and collar, designed for D.C. women to achieve neutral modesty on the four-inch drop from uptight to whore. I’d been debating sucking it up and buying one.
Brooke informed me that she had to get cash and, letting go of any hopes of banter, I followed her into the ATM while composing a text to my similarly inaccessible sister asking her advice about the purchase. Erica, whose Titian hair magically stays pin straight while the curl of mine is more reliable than a barometer. Whose nose is the thinner, perkier version. Who’s an inch taller, a size four to my six, and whose pores, even through adolescence, were never visible. She grabbed all the good genes and I got the leftovers. Four years older, Erica lived in Manhattan, where she continued to evade my lifelong attempts at preemptive consultation. Her opinions about my choices after the fact, however, flew like sniper fire. At our grandmother’s suggestion, around fourth grade, I was signed up for an Irish clog-dancing class, which I loved. The pageantry, hair ribbons, and rhythms were a revelation. But I was all of five minutes into rehearsing in our bedroom when Erica decreed that either the clogs went or I did. I gave it my best, slapping my bunny socks on the hardwood, but Saturday’s practice always found me queasily unsure of what I would produce once wearing the actual shoes. Needless to say, I quickly retired and was back to watching Nickelodeon with the sound down.
I imagined her reading my inquiry between stock trades, or whatever it was she actually did as an analyst. I’m certain that my missive was two sentences and three exclamation marks too many, that I reread it twice, and added a “you rock!” before hitting Send.
“Drugstore.” Brooke’s bag hit my arm as she pushed out the door on what was passing for our lunch date. Three weeks earlier, I had not had to trail people.
I texted Lena while I waited. “Nostalgic for shower vomit this morning.”
“Nostalgic for finals—3 term papers in 48 hrs—didn’t know how easy I had it.” She bemoaned the brutal pace of her new position at a wealth management firm in Beverly Hills.
Brooke signaled from the long line that I should go next door to the deli and start on that long line.
“When you get a minute (hahaha),” I typed as I walked, “find out how I can turn the AC down from your mom?”
“That shit is set at freeze. Menopause, bitch.”
“Aw, menopause—we DO have things to look forward to!”
“Don’t believe you,” she responded as I went inside the deli. “Am going to die at this conference table.”
“No word on job yet. Getting worried.”
The phone went quiet and I knew she had to jump.
I glazed over at the TV above the beer fridge—in D.C. even the delis are tuned to CNN. The blandly attractive face of Brianne Rice came onscreen. I was a freshman when she’d come forward claiming that the President had made “sexual overtures” at her when he was the junior senator from Pennsylvania. Her accusations drove what was pretty universally considered to be one of those Swift Boat smear campaigns that inevitably come up during an election.
Lena and I had debated the veracity and relevance of that claim over French toast sticks. I remember wondering if Brianne was telling the truth, and then being fairly sure she wasn’t, and then it didn’t matter. While it was hard to imagine that our President, whom People had dubbed “Dreamy-in-Chief,” would make a rebuffed pass at anyone, more germane to everyone was that his wife was beloved. While public opinion of him vehemently split the country, it was universally agreed that Susan Rutland was a First Lady who, in her spirit and style, elevated us. It was inconceivable that she didn’t captivate his heart as she did the world’s.
I tried to hear what was happening as I watched footage of the Supreme Court, which is never very exciting footage. Rutland’s legal team had kept the case at bay by claiming that, as a sitting President, he couldn’t be sued. In breaking news, the Supreme Court had agreed to hear their argument, which made the heads of those in line tilt up.
But suddenly someone else pulled my attention. “This place is packed,” a boy with both the tan and air of one who’d just hopped down from a lifeguard chair addressed me. “What’s the deal? Are their Doritos a particularly good vintage?”
“It’s a convenience thing,” I answered, lifting my restricted intern pass, which I wore on a lanyard as if it granted me backstage access to Adam Levine, though all it really allowed me was to follow a tight route from security to my desk. “Like the restaurants on the turnpike.”
“Sorry, but if that’s a dig at Arby’s we might have to take this outside.”
“Sir.” I put a hand to my heart. “What girl wouldn’t pay a toll to get a meal from under a heat lamp?”
He grinned. I guessed he was on vacation or en route to one. Perhaps down to the Carolina beaches. I’d heard some people our age were actually doing these things. Backpacking around Europe, sitting on docks, drinking at lunch. The door opened again and Brooke pushed in with a blast of the summer I’d never have again. “Why’s everyone here?” she asked with annoyance, cutting in front of us.
“Sorry,” I mouthed to him as she grabbed a diet something from the case.
His warm breath was unexpectedly at my ear. “I just heard about this jazz thing in the park tonight. You know about it?”
I nodded. “I’m not let out of my cage very often, but yes, I do.”
The harried lady at the register beckoned and I stepped up to get an iced coffee while Brooke curated her chopped salad. When I glanced back, my eyes met the boy’s as they telegraphed his interest. I had no idea how to parlay this into anything. On a small campus, parlaying had been unnecessary. An awkward coffeehouse introduction could be followed by a mailbox run-in followed by the eventual beer-goggled hook-up. Restricted geography was on my side. But now I realized I’d have only one-shot chances with people, and the prospect that I might end up living alone with cats seemed very real. He finished paying and, to my total surprise, handed me the ripped-off top of his résumé. Oh, so that’s what we do now.
I surreptitiously read his scrawl as Brooke positioned her salad in her tote. “Concert starts @ 7. Meet me at the south entrance?” I flipped it over to see his name, Josh Wright, cell phone, and email in a sturdy, masculine font.
As we stepped outside, I smiled down the straw into my iced coffee, thinking of Josh. Jazz in the park with Josh. “You don’t have a boyfriend,” Brooke stated as she slid her Wayfarers down off headband duty.
“No, no I do not.” Brooke mentioned her boyfriend with a frequency that rivaled our fellow intern Todd’s ability to work having been a Senate page into any conversation. The boyfriend’s name was Bentley. Bentley was doing some business thing in London. Bentley was playing some sport thing in a league. I imagined Bentley wearing The Shirt and pearls, his big feet stretching the elasticized backs of Brooke’s Tory Burches.
I took a long slurp, thinking of the intermittent string of discarded flannel shirts on the floor of my dorm room. “Nothing serious. Not since high school.” The guys at Vassar had been so repulsively tentative: perpetually half-high, too in love with their film projects—their vision—to really come for anyone in a grand romantic gesture kind of way.
Not like my first boyfriend. In junior high I’d started studying every afternoon at the Naperville town library to avoid Erica, and I had a crush on Mike Harnet from the first time I saw him in the stacks. He had moved with his family to New Orleans from Norway because his dad was a musician. I loved how he spoke—his English was pretty perfect, but his inflection was highly formal, and it made me think of Tolkien and wizards and fairies. He had a mop of short black hair, a still-pink scar on his temple from dueling a playground slide, a braces-free smile, and a declared mission to determine a favorite book in every single section. One rainy day when I got up from my spot, I returned to find a Post-it left on my science textbook. He’d written, “?” When I looked up, he was watching me from between the stacks. We stared at each other like that for a moment, suspended. Then I marched down the deserted aisle and thrust the square of yellow paper at him, feigning annoyance. Mike lifted his finger, then slowly circled it as if about to land anywhere on me. A foreign heat popped open in my chest and radiated downward. Oh my God, I thought. Oh my God. He leaned in very slowly until the warmth of his chapped lips landed on mine.
That was our first kiss.
So I worried. In the years that followed, I worried that I was incapable of feeling something for someone who didn’t know how to initiate.
We followed the shade of the awnings, passing the frame store with that ubiquitous dorm-room poster of the woman applying lipstick while the shirtless guy watches. “I miss that.” I gestured with the tip of my straw.
“You know, The Look.”
“How he looks at her. Appraises her. That thing where you can see it in their eyes—they’re in.”
“Right. Okay, Jamie.” I did not picture Bentley giving Brooke The Look. “Can I offer you feedback?”
“Sure!” I said automatically as if she’d offered me ice cream.
“I just think you should . . .” She turned her wrist, her thin Cartier bracelets staggered on her arm hairs. “Be beige.”
She nodded as though she’d cleared her conscience and continued across the street. I took a long drag of my straw. What? “Sorry, just to clarify.”
“Beige is . . . ?”
She let out a how-do-we-solve-a-problem-like-Maria sigh as we arrived back at security. She unrolled her sleeves and closed her ninety-dollar button. “Being charming,” she said the word derisively, “doesn’t inspire confidence. We just thought you should know, okay?” She gave me a flat smile and went through the screener. We? I stood there with my face beating. I did not get that place. At all. I tugged out my phone as she walked off, willing it to beam me out of there—I just needed that job to come through.
• • •
For the remainder of that afternoon I still didn’t get any word, but I did manage to book multiple hotel-room blocks, schedule a magnitude of press-corps bus charters, and locate the largest dining room in Skokie that had a “homey feel” while seating nine hundred some-odd people. And furtively search everything about the adorable Josh Wright all the way back to his fourth-grade intramural soccer photo. Here’s what I knew: (A) always adorable, (B) possessed over a thousand Facebook friends, including the handful we had in common, and (C) was from—wait for it—Los Angeles.
• • •
Finally I was there, having the kind of night I thought life after college was going to be full of. I was a girl working for free right in the heart of it all, reclining on the grass as the waning sun streaked the sky orange. “If the intern program needed a brochure, the cover should be a picture of us here, now,” I said to Josh as I took another sip of wine he had the class to bring to the concert with two plastic cups.
“I don’t think they’re pitching a lifestyle.” He smiled and leaned back on his elbows.
“Come on, hovering-with-the-hope-of-getting-chosen is totally a lifestyle.”
“In L.A., too,” he said. “My dad once got handed a head shot while having his teeth cleaned.”
“Sorry, I meant to say homely hovering.”
“We have homely. Despite the mayor’s best efforts, we even have old people and the disabled.” He tipped his head to my shoulder. “So I’m sure I can find some homely for you when you come out.” I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t checked my email since I ran out to meet him. I sat forward to root in my bag and realized I’d left my phone in my desk.
He slid his from his pocket. “It’s a little after nine.”
“When’s end of business out there?”
“Now-ish. This doesn’t have to end. Come on.” He grinned. “I’ll walk you back.”
We strolled beneath the magnolias as he told me about Wesleyan. We compared if-I-don’t-get-off-campus-I’ll-shoot-someone trips into the city. We laughed about his roommate’s obese pet rabbit who hated him and waited every night for him to get into bed before leaping onto his head. We lamented over job searches—his just passing the one-year mark. “Well,” I said, slowing as we approached the guard booth. “You can wait here—I’ll text you if I get stuck—”
“I’ll come in with you.”
“Yeah, right.” I grinned.
“But you work there.”
“Not really. I mean, I definitely don’t have clearance to bring anyone in—I could meet you at a bar. Or if anyone needs me to do anything and it takes me more than twenty minutes, we could meet up near your hotel?”
He tipped back on his heels. “Okay. I was kinda thinking . . . I don’t really have a hotel, actually, not in the budget—Dad’s getting a little uptight with the bankrolling at this point. My flight’s first thing. I was just gonna wander, but, wow, it’s so humid—and the mosquitoes. How about I wait at your place?” He leaned in to kiss me.
I stepped back. “Um . . .”
“Come on, Jamie.”
“I’m staying at a friend’s mom’s place, so I can’t—”
“Oh. I get it. Well, maybe we can meet up later,” he said, looking up and down the block, so abruptly over me. “Which way is the Metro?”
I pointed, suddenly not feeling like an object of desire so much as an easy mark. Like Homeaway.com crossed with Nerve.
He didn’t even wave as he walked away.
Inside, the vapors of wine turning rancid in my mouth, I strode quickly to my desk, where my phone was vibrating in the drawer.
“Mom?” I answered, voice loud in the near-empty office.
“Hey, you have to resend me that email about visiting you for the Fourth.” She sounded distracted. I pictured her at the old computer in the living room, the phone clamped to her shoulder as she slit the day’s mail from its envelopes, heels slipped off and knee-highs soon to follow.
“Okay.” I put in my headphones so I could check for the job offer while talking. Please let this day be erased by this email, I thought. Save me, save me, save me . . .
“The thing is, we weren’t sure how Erica was going to get to you from the airport.”
“She can take the Metro, it’s super easy. Or there’re buses. And there’s always a cab.” Gmail downloaded.
“It might not be a good weekend for her to get away, with her work.”
“You two could always come without her.” I knew the answer to that one.
“We’d like to see her, too,” she reminded me.
“Of course, great.” And there it was. From the City of Los Angeles, as if the whole population had weighed in on me. I clicked it open, my eyes darting to read that they were reluctant to inform me . . . at this time . . . they would keep my application on file . . . if.
“Everything good with you, bug?”
“Yes, great. You guys okay?”
“Yup, all good,” she said, and then I heard the soundtrack of whatever my dad was watching recede. “So get this,” she continued in a hushed voice, and I knew she’d stepped onto the top of the basement stairs. “Baker announced he’s retiring this fall.”
“So that’s good, right?”
“Good?” Her voice rose, and I could see her dropping her head against the phone the way she does when she’s reached the day’s end.
“Because he’ll finally be gone,” I reasoned. Ten years ago Chip Baker, coach of Chicago U’s football team, fired Dad when he tumbled off the wagon in the preseason.
“Well, sure. But first he’ll be everywhere. You know how this town feels about him. Your father hurled the remote at the screen. Oh, there’s Erica calling me back. So, if she’s a go we’ll see you on the third?”
“Can’t wait. And let me know if there’s anything special you guys want to do while you’re—”
“Great. Love you.” She hung up. I sat at my desk, now hoping I would be spotted and pulled in to do something—urgently—that I could accomplish—brilliantly—and reclaim this incredibly crappy day.
I was brought back by a text from Erica responding to my shirt question, hours later. “No.”
An empty apartment waited. The anesthetizing whir of its appliances. Too many more days with Brooke and her “people.” Followed by Chili’s. And my parents.
A headache from the cheap wine building, I tugged my ponytail out of its elastic band and walked quickly down the empty carpeted hall, shaking out my hair. I dropped my head back, letting out a breath to the dentil molding high above. Fuck. Fuck! This was so not how this was supposed to go. I should have applied to more places, sucked it up and moved home, saved the money that could have put me closer to escape than defeat, been more beige. Suddenly two Secret Service men emerged from the opposite office, passing swiftly. And then, just like that, there was the President, so much taller than me, the solid warmth of a muscular arm grazing me as he strode past in a white dress shirt. His sandy-blond hair glinting in the lamplight, a hint of spiced deodorant in his wake. The magnitude of it spun me around.
Between two ficus trees potted in Ming bowls, twisting to gaze over his shoulder, this happened and I know it with absolute certainty. At that jet lag of an age, in that drought of a time, on a day when being called inconsequential would have been a promotion, the most powerful man in the world gave me The Look.
And I was the only one who saw it.
It was graduation weekend, long after midnight. Parents had been packed off to their motels, or talked into making the drive home alone with U-Hauls affixed to their tails. The air had chilled and there was a fire in the hearth of that sagging house, which someone else rented the year before and someone would rent the year after, the unchanging backdrop to an unchanging drama. Of course we wanted to think our year was different, our heartbreaks, our pregnancy scares, our Fs in organic chem, but they weren’t. There was nothing unprecedented about us. Even the enormity of graduating into the worst job market anyone could remember was being played out before fireplaces just like that one on campuses across the country.
We shared beers and bongs, and random liqueurs bogarted at Christmas, looking at each other with affection intensified by a calcifying nostalgia. Someone in our group within the group placed a bottle down on the sticky wood floor and gave it a spin. Just truth or drink. Because by this point we’d made out with whoever we were going to; no point forcing the issue.
My best friend, Lena, her ticket to LAX on her folded quilt upstairs, laughed and nudged me into the impromptu circle, curious to see what I’d finally disclose at the zero hour. She kept stroking her newly straightened hair that made her look like Jennifer Hudson’s younger sister, a preparatory step for the financial job she was about to start on the other side of the country.
What would I do without her?
I looked over and saw Mark still trying to get closure with his ex-boyfriend. Ashley was trying ’shrooms, because if not then—when? And the bottle had slowed in front of Willow, who was telling the story of her first penis. Something about a dropped suit at summer camp—more innocent than her interrogator was hoping, but, hey, she answered the question. That was the only rule.
I saw the time on a phone vibrating its way under the sunken couch and my chest pleated in. The hours were dwindling. I knew I would stay up until Lena and I shared a cab to the train station. This would all be over and my internship would begin and I wasn’t ready. I dropped my head on my freckled arms, my ginger ponytail flopping like a cast anchor. I wanted one more day on a meal plan. One more class to walk to. One more free movie.
I looked up. The bottle pointed at me. “Jamie,” Mateo prompted, rubbing his curls off his forehead still covered by a smattering of acne.
“Oh, shit, she’s giving me one of those Jamie smiles. Uh-uh, I’m not letting you off. Lena.” Mateo looked to where she stood behind me. “Anything left you want to know?”
“What’d she get on her Spanish final, did she let that skinny guy from sophomore year sleep in my bed, and where are my red shoes?”
I laughed as Mateo shook off her suggestions. “Okay, Jamie, for a shot of Patrón and the last Mallomar. First time you gave a—”
Before the media thought they knew everything about me, before a bunch of lawyers at the Office of the Independent Counsel tried to know everything about me, before one man did know everything about me, I was a girl with secrets.
The First Affair
I was twenty-two years old only three weeks out of college.
I thought my whole life was beginning...then he kissed me.
Jamie McAlister has resigned herself to the fact that in this job market, her painfully expensive degree might only get her a position at Starbucks, when she suddenly lands a prestigious internship at the White House. Although she doesn’t hit it off with the other interns—who come from so much money that ten weeks without a paycheck doesn’t faze them—she is eager to work hard and make the best of the opportunity while it lasts.
An unexpected encounter late one evening with the charismatic President Gregory Rutland seems like just a fleeting flirtation, but when he orchestrates clandestine meetings and late-night phone calls, their relationship quickly escalates. Jamie knows what she is doing is wrong: he’s married, he has kids, he’s the President. Yet each time she tries to extricate herself, Greg pulls her back in.
With the conflicted desires of the most powerful man in the world driving her to her breaking point, Jamie can’t help but divulge intimate details to those closest to her. But she must have confided in the wrong person, because she soon finds herself, and everyone she cares about, facing calculated public destruction at the hands of Greg’s political enemies, and—perhaps no matter how much he cares about her—at the hands of Greg himself.
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Reading Group Guide
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Early on, Brooke tries to give Jamie some advice about how to conduct herself professionally, saying, “Being charming….doesn’t inspire confidence.” Do you agree? Do you think that the same statement applies to men as it does for women?
2. Is Jamie a victim? What responsibility does she bear?
3. In what ways does Jamie take after her mother? Do you think that the scandal brings her closer to Erica and to her father? Consider how the dynamics and alliances within Jamie’s family evolve as the narrative progresses.
4. As you were reading, who did you suspect divulged Jamie’s secret?
5. Discuss the connection that Jamie and Greg shared. How mutual was it? Do you think it ever evolved out of lust to love?
6. To what extent did you feel that Jamie’s experience with Mike shaped her perception of how romantic relationships are conducted?
7. What do you think the novel is saying about the relationship between power and sex?
8. Discuss the gifts that see more