Christmas in Washington
Three days before Christmas, the spirit of the season was anything but lost on that chilly winter night. While the snow continued spiraling down from the patched-overcast sky, passers-by in scarves and earmuffs with cocoa and candy canes in hand bustled to and fro in search of the perfect Christmas tree. Strings of white icicle lights twinkled overhead, while loudspeakers at the corners of the kiosk blared familiar holiday tunes. Somewhere across the street, a chorus of carolers broke into “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The melody of their voices carried on the December wind, mingling with the festive atmosphere.
It was in this near-perfect holiday setting that the current--outgoing--President of the United States faced what he considered one of the great challenges of his second term: the task of choosing a Christmas tree for the White House.
“All right, boys,” George W. Bush instructed a black-clad trio of Secret Service agents. “Go on out there and find me a winner. Don’t come back here ‘till you do.”
Beside the President, former Vice President Al Gore stood, green tea latte in hand, shaking his head slightly.
“Should you have done that, George?” the Nobel laureate questioned, arching an eyebrow. “Somehow, I don’t think dismissing half your security detail is something in the best interest of your personal safety.” He considered the notion briefly before adding, “Nor mine, for that matter.”
“Oh, pshaw,” the President replied dismissively. “You worry too much, Albert. ‘Sides, I got you here. Anyone tries to jump me, you could just start talking about glaciers melting and bore ‘em right to death.” He punctuated his quip with a cocky half-smirk. Al just rolled his eyes.
“I honestly do not know how or why I entertain you sometimes.”
“You know you love me,” George said with a grin.
“That may be so,” Al replied smoothly. “The question stands, however.” He took a meditative sip from his latte, which was now unpleasantly lukewarm. “Ugh.” He winced. “Are you going to pick a tree sometime today, or what?”
“Hey, this is a big decision,” George protested. “Now ain’t the time to cut and run.”
“On the contrary,” said Al, matter-of-factly, “in this situation, I believe ‘cut and run’ would be apropos.”
“Funny,” grumbled George. “Besides, ain’t you havin’ fun out here? I thought hippies liked trees. Maybe you should hug one or something.”
“You know, that ‘tree hugger’ bit wasn’t funny the first three times. I don’t know what you think has changed, here.” Al rebuked, pulling his heavy wool coat more tightly around broad shoulders. “I understand this is a highly difficult executive decision, however--”
“Now, don’t you start trying to be witty, Mr. smarty-pants inter-lectual.”
“How many times must I insist, that is so not even a word--”
“Whatever. Smarty-pants. You’re supposed to be helping me, here.” George interjected. “Offering bi-partisan support or whatever it is that you liberals do when you’re not chaining yourself to trees and whatnot in protest of stuff.”
“George,” the other man’s voice was so cool, so measured, that it gave the President pause for a moment. “You are this close to getting the remainder of this now-cold latte poured down the front of your shirt.” He smiled a smile that was anything but sweet, and severely lacking in his customary Southern charms. “Make one more ‘tree hugger’ crack. I dare you.” George promptly muttered something under his breath. “What was that, dear? I didn’t catch it.”
“You look real handsome tonight,” was George’s offhanded reply. “That’s all I said.”
“That’s what I thought you said.” Al said, not without triumph.
The two meandered along, ducking a strand of crudely-hung, multicolored lights, and continuing on up between two long rows of tall, full Balsam firs. “This one’s not bad.” Al gestured to one of the tall evergreens. George wrinkled his nose.
“Nah, I don’t like it. Leans too far to the left.”
“Ha.” Al rolled his eyes.
“Hey, something’s wrong with this one.” George pointed to a small, scruffy-looking sapling with a pronounced droop. “It looks sad.”
“Must have been an early supporter of your economic policy,” Al deadpanned, receiving a pointed glare in his direction in response.
“You know, you ain’t the least bit funny.”
“I’m not,” corrected Al. “I’m not the least but funny.”
“I know. It’s nice to hear you finally admit it, though.”
“Touché,” Al said with a smile.
The two turned the corner and approached the back of the lot. A long moment’s silence passed between them then, hanging in the air amid the sound of laughter and the voices of the carolers across the way.
“Al, how in the world does a guy like you put up with me?”
It was a profound question. So profound, in fact, that the former VP stopped where he was and turned, regarding the President questioningly.
“What makes you ask that?” George shoved both his hands deep into his pockets and looked down. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
“Heck, I don’t know.” Al was studying George intently now, his cool gaze measuring.
“You know, dear, contrary to rumors you might have heard on the internets, I don’t despise you.”
“You think I’m a terrible President.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t love you.” George looked up then, an unreadable expression on his face.
“You know, what I said back there, I--I wasn’t just sayin’ it to get out of trouble.” His eyes were back on the snow-dusted ground in front of him. “You really do look amazing tonight. And I don’t know if it’s the moonlight, or the way that bright blue tie matches the shade of your eyes, or the way those sparkly little snowflakes cling to your hair--”
“Shh, darlin.’” Al shushed George gently. “You’re rambling.” He reached for one of George’s hands, taking it into his own. He met George’s gaze, searching his stormy blue eyes in question. “Tell me, where is all of this coming from?”
“I just--It’s been too long, and I’ve missed you.” He bit his lip and averted his gaze from Al‘s, staring off toward some distant entity. “I miss you all the time.”
“Well, I’ve missed you, too.”
“I gotta make a confession here, Al.” He sighed gravely. “You know, we could walk around this place ten more times and stay here all night, but there wouldn’t be any point. I’ve already got a tree tied to the roof out there. I picked it out at least an hour ago.” He looked down and fidgeted. “I guess I just wanted an excuse to spend time with you.”
“I was aware of that,” replied Al with a knowing smile. “I suppose I needed an excuse of my own.” George glanced up at Al, his gaze bashful and somewhat apologetic.
“We can go now, if you want.”
“No. Let’s stay a little while longer.” He took George’s hand in his own again, and the two continued walking.
They stayed until the last customers had left, until the spotlights had gone out and the carolers had found their way home, leaving nothing but the silent winter eve in their wake. Afterward, the two piled into the back of the black Expedition they’d arrived in, thoroughly chilled to the bone, but laughing too hard at some joke George had told to notice. The vehicle rolled out of the gravel parking lot and they were on their way, heading in the direction of Pennsylvania Avenue. In the backseat, the two held hands like two teenagers on a chaperoned date--sitting close, thigh-to-thigh, George leaning into Al’s shoulder discreetly as if the driver might be able to see them through the heavy tinted glass barrier.
“So, you’re in town for Joe Biden’s Christmas party, huh?” George asked, nuzzling the side of Al’s neck.
“Mmm. At this rate, he’s going to be lucky if I make it.” He turned his head and stole a kiss from George, letting his lips linger a long moment. “You know, you never did tell me what you’re still doing in D.C. I thought you were heading to Crawford this Christmas.”
“Well, Laura and the girls left this morning. I got some stuff to do before I head down there myself. You know, transition stuff, the White House farewell Christmas party. That sort of thing.”
“Looking forward to getting out in January?”
“Well, yes and no.” George shrugged. “On one hand, I feel like I’m leaving my job unfinished, like there’s more that I could and should have done in office. On the other hand, going home to Texas is something that’ll do me more good than harm.”
“I know what you mean.”
“You know, you’re welcome to come down to Dallas anytime. I’m thinking--” He paused, musing to himself a moment. “I’m thinking that getting back to normal life after the Presidency is going to take some adjusting. I might, you know, need you or something.”
“You? Need me?” Al’s tone was lightly teasing as he wrapped an arm around George’s shoulders and pulled him closer to his side. George, in turn, wrapped both arms around Al’s waist and rested his head in the crook of his shoulder.
“You keep me grounded,” he said softly. “You always have. Even when you didn’t know you did.”
The ride back to the White House passed by too quickly, and before either of them knew it, the SUV wheeled through the gates and cruised to a stop in the driveway.
For a lengthy moment, neither of them made a move, wanting to prolong the closeness that was between them as long as humanly possible.
“I could hold on to you forever,” murmured Al, squeezing George’s waist.
“I wish you would,” George replied with a little smile. “But if you did, who’d save the world from melting glaciers? Besides. I don’t want that crazy Rahm Emanuel guy sending you a dead fish or something because you were late to Joe Biden’s Christmas party.” Al snickered.
“Certainly not.” George sat up, slipping from Al’s hold reluctantly. “May I have the honor of walking you to the door?”
Amid the questioning gazes of the Secret Service agents hovering near the vehicle, the two emerged from the back of the SUV and meandered, hand-in-hand, up the remainder of the sidewalk.
They paused at the doorstep, both staring out at the wintry Washington landscape that lay dusted in white. It had stopped snowing, for the moment, and stars glittered brightly through the clear, indigo breaks in the grey sky.
“Well, I guess this is it,” said Al, taking both George’s hands and pulling him forward playfully. “Merry Christmas, Mr. President.”
“Happy New Year, too, if I don’t talk to you before then.”
“I’ll be in touch.”
“Oh, and one more thing, Mr. Vice President.” George said with a smirk. “Look up.” Al did. Above the door, where they both stood, a large sprig of mistletoe hung as an open invitation. Their gazes met and locked, and Al raised his eyebrows.
“Well, look at that. How convenient.” With that, Al swept George into a strong embrace, nearly off his feet, and caught his mouth in a kiss that made both of them forget the cold.
When they parted at last, George’s arms were twined around Al’s neck, and Al was holding him so close, he could feel the strong, even beat of the other man’s heart against his own chest. “You know, George,” said Al with a smile, “if I don’t leave now, there’s a good chance Joe Biden might not see me at all tonight.” He leaned in and placed another tender kiss on George’s lips. “Wish I could stay, though. Help you decorate that tree.”
“You’d just hug it anyway.” George grinned devilishly, earning himself a playful slap on the arm from Al. “I know, I know. I ain’t funny.”
“You’re not. You’re not funny.”
“Hey, neither are you. You admitted it yourself.” The two exchanged a long, meaningful glance, and Al smiled warmly.
“It was good seeing you again,” he said in earnest. “Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of each other here soon.” He glanced at his watch. “Honey, I have to--”
“I know.” George offered a weak smile. “Go on, get outta here. Before Rahm sends his goons after you. I have to get ready for that staff party anyway.”
“I love you, George Walker Bush.”
“And don‘t you forget that, Mr. Gore.”
Al laughed and gave George a final squeeze before turning and heading back down the stairs to the sidewalk. “Be careful,” George called out after him. “Might be gettin’ icy out there. I’m sure that little hybrid clown car has all the traction abilities of a damn golf cart.”
“That was so funny, I forgot to laugh,” Al called back, his tone blatantly sarcastic. George smiled to himself and watched his retreating form until he was out of sight, disappearing behind one of the massive Secret Service vehicles.
The President sighed heavily and shoved his hands into his coat pockets, watching half-heartedly as three black-suited agents wrestled the tall spruce off the roof of the Expedition. As he turned to walk back inside, he noticed it was starting to snow again.