Out of the Closet (Into My Heart)
October 3, 2000--a date to live in infamy, so to speak, both for me and for my Presidential aspirations. It was the night of the first of three televised debates between myself and my opponent, then-governor of Texas--a man known to some as, simply, “Dubya.” With the election less than a month away, things had come down to the wire--and it went without saying that the proverbial gloves had long since come off. There was a dark cloud of tension that had descended over that spacious university auditorium, settling itself heavily upon my subconscious. A discordant voice of warning told me I was in for it--the time for cordial greetings and civil disagreements had long past. This was hardball now--and to the dirtiest player in the game went the spoils.
No political race in this day and age can be won the fair and clean way, especially not against a man of George Walker Bush’s caliber. The Texas governor, while not particularly well-spoken, was a formidable politician. He knew his talking points, and he expressed them in layman’s terms--he used his ranch-tending, God-fearing, good-old-West-Texas boy image to his advantage and he exploited it. And sadly, it worked well enough for him.
He was charismatic. He was humble. And by God, he was infuriating.
I almost felt sorry for poor Jim Lehrer, who had the misfortune of moderating that particular debate at U-Mass that night. Our square-off against one another was little more than a civilized knock-down drag-out, both of us disregarding our three-minute response limits. During this debate, I learned of my opponent’s prowess for discreetly fighting dirty--and damned if he wasn’t good at it. All the while, he touted his plan for impossible tax cuts, took blatant cheap shots at my health care reform policies, insulted my foreign policy, and actually found ways to vilify my years of experience in Washington.
But what got to me--really got to me--was the way he would glance at me and smirk when he made a point he thought was particularly clever. It was the single, most unbelievably cocky gesture I had ever seen, and it was all I could do not to hit the roof. Or him, for that matter.
As desperately as I wanted to throw something heavy in his general direction, I managed to show a fair amount of restraint. For the record, I only rolled my eyes in disgust a grand total of eighty-seven times. I only insulted his lack of experience for the office of President when he took yet another shot at my Medicare plan. (Medi-scare, he called it.) And I believe I only sighed dramatically and showed my outward disdain on the occasion that my opponent said something remarkably stupid. Which, to be frank, was often.
When our war of words and sighs and gestures had at last come to a close, I stood at my podium, making my closing remarks. I was fairly certain I caught him leering at me out of the corner of my eye. There was a sardonic look squarely in place on his features that said, clearly, “I don’t believe a damn word of what you’re saying.” The feeling was mutual.
And then, to my relief, it was all over.
After the cameras went off, I shook a few hands, exchanged a few pleasantries, and headed to the stage left exit to meet up with the family. As I stood at the top of the staircase, I was struck with the most unnerving sense that I was being watched. Intently. It was the feeling of someone’s eyes boring holes through the back of my head. A jolt ran down my spine, and I turned involuntarily--just in time to catch George Walker Bush shooting the mother of all death stares in my general direction. His eyes caught and locked on mine in a gaze that nearly sent a shiver through me; frigid and icy blue, his stare was a clear challenge. Bring it on, Mr. Smartass.
If looks could kill, as the saying went, I’d have been KO’d on the spot.
There’s a saying we have in Tennessee. I’m certain they have it in Texas as well. “Shoot first,” it goes, “ask questions later.” Hell, the saying probably originated in Texas; that wouldn’t surprise me.
But while Walker, Texas Ranger was saddling up with his six-gun at his side, I had decided early on that I didn’t want to duel. There would be plenty of time for that in the next round, in the next debate. I shot him a warning look--back off--and quickly turned away. There was that prickling at the back of my neck again, stronger than before. You’ve gotta be kidding me.
Thankfully at that moment, I caught sight of my dear daughter Karenna, who was running down the breezeway toward me--sporting, if I remember correctly, a new haircut and a pink designer dress. Her face lit up when she saw me, and she pranced up the stairs, positively beaming.
“Way to go, Dad!” She threw her arms around me and I squeezed her in return, lifting her slightly off the ground. “You were great up there.”
“Scale of one to ten?” I grinned at her.
“Ten,” she replied. “I’d say you took this one, hands-down. And--” She nodded over my shoulder. “Judging by that look Governor Bush is giving you right now, I’d say he’d agree.”
“Hmm?” Oh, damn it all to hell. Come to think of it, that unnerving sensation was back, yet again. Against my better judgment, I turned and looked back. This time, he was less than ten or twelve feet away from me, standing directly in my line of vision. Staring. Those piercing eyes burning into mine from across the room were crafted of ill intent, an unspoken vendetta. This was starting to get weird. I glanced questioningly back at Karenna, arching an eyebrow and watching her shrug in response. When I looked over my shoulder again, he was gone.
Yep. Definitely time to get the hell out of here.
“Where’s your mother, pumpkin?” I asked Karenna. She took my arm and we started walking away from the auditorium, toward the foyer.
“She went to the ladies’ room,” she replied with a little smile. “She said she and the rest of the gang would meet you at the main entrance. Oh, and she says to make yourself useful and grab her coat from the closet down the hall.” I had to make a conscious effort not to roll my eyes.
“I’m gonna go see if I can find her anywhere,” said Karenna. “I’ll meet up with you in a few.”
“Of course, dear.”
We parted ways at the main door, Karenna heading toward the restrooms, and I toward the part of the building that was marked “restricted,” except to members of the campaigns, respectively. The campus police guarding the door nodded at me as I passed. I was safe here.
Or so I thought.
All the way to the end of the hall, turn right, and all the way to the end of that hall to the left was where I’d remembered having seen the coat closet. Making the turn around the corner, I was suddenly aware of how oddly empty the halls were. There wasn’t another soul in sight. I didn’t think much of it, assuming everyone must still be out in the auditorium.
When at last I found the door to the coat closet, I pushed it open, and swore. Finding Tipper’s coat would prove more challenging than I had anticipated. There were coats upon coats piled damn near to the ceiling. Crap. I trudged into the closet and set to rifling through coats, suddenly realizing I didn’t quite recall which coat Tipper had been wearing when we’d left earlier that evening…
“Stealin’ ladies’ coats there, Mr. Gore?” The sudden voice from behind me both startled and vexed me; I recognized it immediately. I knew well who would be standing in the doorway when I turned around. Rolling my eyes involuntarily, I turned on my heel--and scowled at once when I saw him. Leaning in the doorway, blocking my only escape, he had one hand on his hip and that cocky smirk on his face. I bristled automatically.
“What the hell do you want?” The infuriating smirk only intensified.
“Now, now, Mr. Gore. That ain’t any way to talk to your future Commander-in-Chief, now, is it?”
“That’s Mr. Vice President to you, Governor,” I sneered. “Now don’t make me ask you twice. What the hell are you doing here?”
“We-e-e-e-ll,” he drawled, “I actually followed you down here.”
“You what?” I narrowed my eyes, doing my best to hide the fact that I was more than a little sketched out at present. “Why?”
“I wanted to talk to you,” he said matter-of-factly. “I even asked the security guys to clear out this restricted area so I could talk to you in private.” Oh, dear Lord. Every conscious nerve in my body was on edge, my defenses alerting me to the clear and presently-smirking danger that stood before me. I couldn’t help but find it more than a little suspicious that my Republican adversary would go to such great lengths to get me alone, follow me into a secluded hallway and corner me in a coat closet.
Still, I don’t think I was quite so wary as I would have been had he been giving me that death glare he’d given me after the debate. The way he was looking at me now--it was something entirely different, something completely uncharacteristic of him. The cocky, maddeningly confident Texan seemed absent for the moment, replaced by a man who had his shields up--the alpha wolf wounded in battle, but not wanting to show it for fear of being ripped to shreds again. He was open, vulnerable. And I hadn’t the slightest idea why.
He had to be up to something. That was all there was to it.
I crossed my arms over my chest, regarding him flatly.
“Well, I just wanted to tell you that I--” He was looking at my shoes, avoiding eye contact altogether. Weirdo. “I didn’t take kindly to the way you conducted yourself during the debate. The way you kept sighing and rolling your eyes at me while I was tryin’ to talk--it just--” He sighed petulantly, looking me squarely in the eye. “It ain’t nice, is what it ain’t. And--and I don‘t appreciate it.” He may have well added a “so there,” to the end of his statement, because that’s what his defiant stare clearly said to me.
You have got to be kidding me. My jaw dropped.
“Not nice?” I demanded, incredulous. “You must be joking! George, you--you sat there and attacked my policy, took cheap shots at me and scowled in my direction every time I so much as defended myself against your slanderous, absurd condemnations of my experience for crying out loud--”
“Well, if you hadn’t a-said nothing back…”
“You are unbelievable!” I exploded. “I cannot believe I am actually standing here, listening to this nonsense. There’s no way in hell I’m going to take this insubordination from you.” I started toward the door; he promptly stepped in my way, blocking my exit. “Out of my way.”
“No.” He stood his ground.
“Move,” I growled, “or I will call security.”
“No you won’t.” He stepped swiftly toward me, forcing me to take a step back, allowing him just enough room to slip into the coat closet with me and close the door behind him. “Now, you listen to me, Al.”
“Mr. Vice President,” I snapped.
“Whatever.” Ah, there he was. The cocky Texan had returned. “Now, listen here, you smarty-pants interlectual.”
“Inter-lectual?” I repeated with a sneer. “That isn’t even a word.”
“Smartass,” he shot back. “Now, you hear me on this, Mr. Vice President. I ain’t gonna take no crap or nothing from you, so, uh…” He straightened himself up, still standing shorter than my considerable height. “I demand an apology.”
“Ha!” I rolled my eyes dramatically. “What’s wrong, did I hurt your feelings? Oh, poor baby. I’ve got news for you. This isn’t Texas, and I’m not just some half-rate backwoods politician like the poor saps you ran against to become governor. You’re in the big leagues now, sweetheart, and I’m one of those big, bad Washington politicians that you’re oh-so-scared shitless of.” He took a step back from me then, his eyes wild and blazing with a fire I’d not seen from him. But I was on a roll, and I wasn’t about to stop. “A word of advice,” I sneered. “Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it in return.”
“We’ll see who’s gonna be taking it!” He snarled at me. “You just wait. You’ll be sorry you ever messed with George Walker Bush!” He fired a nasty glare at me and whirled on his heel, reaching to jerk the door open, prepared to make a dramatic exit.
That dramatic exit, as it were, didn’t quite go as planned.
The next moment that passed was one that I remember vividly--an awkward silence that passed for a beat, and then his sheepish voice ringing out of the still air. “Eh heh. Whoops.”
“Whoops, what?” I demanded--and then stopped dead at the sight before me. George stood in front of me, an utterly flabbergasted look on his face. In his hand was the doorknob. Both our eyes widened at that moment as we both realized the horrible fate that had just befallen us.
“Uh-oh, Al.” His voice was thin. “I think we’re stuck in here.”
Peachy. Wonderful. Just flipping great.
“What? Oh, stop. That’s nothing to joke about.”
“I ain’t. I’m serious.” He turned to the door and gave it a good, solid shove with the side of his shoulder. The heavy wooden door didn’t budge.
Oh, dear God, no. Please, no.
“Hmm. Maybe if I just try to shove this thingy back on here--” He tried, unsuccessfully, to jimmy the knob back onto the door. When that didn’t work, he set to trying to force the knob back on. Also, unsuccessful. I wasn’t about to hang around and wait for Curious George to fix what he’d broken. While he was wrestling with the door, I reached into my pocket and dug out my cell phone, prepared to call someone--anyone--for help.
NO SIGNAL, the little green screen read. Apparently, Fate had some kind of warped sense of humor. Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it.
George had since resigned his fight with the door and now stood, slumped slightly against it. A worried look mapped itself onto his face. “We’re trapped,” he stated the obvious. “I’m trapped. With you. In a closet that smells like old lady perfume and moth balls.”
“Well, look on the bright side,” I offered sarcastically. “From what I hear, coming out of the closet is a liberating experience.”
“You ain’t funny.”
“Yeah? Neither are you.” There was a stepstool in the corner, and I pulled it over and plunked down on it, resting my elbows on my knees. “You know, the hilarity of this entire situation just slays me.”
“Hilarity?” He squinted. “Ain’t that your buddy Bill’s wife? What’s she got to do with this?” I might have laughed, had that not been a serious question on his part.
“Lord,” I murmured, letting my head fall into my hands.
“How long until somebody comes, do you think?” George frowned. “I don’t wanna be in here all night.”
“Well, think about it,” I pointed out. “They’re serving refreshments in the lobby until eleven.” I looked at my watch. “It’s ten now. There’s nobody back here but us. So, unless someone notices we’re gone and thinks to look here…”
“We’re stuck here.” He pouted. “And I’m missing the free cheese and cocktail weenies.” He sighed irritably. “You know, there’s gotta be a way out of here.”
“There is,” I quipped. “Through that door. But, uh, you broke it.”
“It ain’t my fault,” he protested. “Now, I’m tryin’ to think, here.”
“Don’t hurt yourself.”
“Don’t interrupt my plane of thought!” I chose not to dignify that one with a response. Suddenly, he burst out with, “Aha! I’ve got it!”
“Well, I certainly hope it isn’t contagious.”
“You ain’t helping. Now, if you’d just quit with the quick-witted sarcasm, I might just have a plan to get us out of here.”
“Well, let’s hear it.” Desperate times, as it goes, call for desperate measures.
“All right. You see that air conditioning vent up there?” He pointed. “I saw this in a movie once.” My head sank into my hands again. Oh, dear God, we are screwed. “Die Hard,” he continued, matter-of-factly. “The good guy climbs up an air vent and uses the ducts to escape from the terrorists.” Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker. I shook my head.
“George, even if that were at all realistic--” He wasn’t hearing a word I said. Even as I spoke, he was dragging a short ladder over and positioning it beneath the vent. “What in God’s name are you doing now?” I demanded as he started up the ladder.
“I’m getting the hell out of here.” He frowned. “Damn. This thing ain’t tall enough. Come here and lift me up.”
“What? No.” I sighed exasperatedly. “Look, even if you did succeed in getting all the way up to the ceiling, your ass isn’t going to fit through that vent--”
“Ha!” He cut me off. “That’s sissy talk. Hand me those phone books over there.” I did, and he stacked the phone books on the top rung of the ladder, then daringly climbed atop the whole apparatus. “Spot me,” he commanded. “I’m going for it.”
“If you fall and break your damn fool neck, they’re going to think it was my fault.” I stood reluctantly and held out my hands for him, hoping that if he did happen to fall, he wouldn’t fall directly on me.
“Dang it! Still can’t reach.”
“I told you it wouldn’t work.” I offered up a hand to steady him on his way down.
“Well, it was worth a shot,” he fired back. “At least I tried, unlike you.”
“George, if you’d hold your damn horses, I’m more than certain there are people who are looking for us right now. It’s only a matter of time--”
“Hah! You know, if everybody had that sissy liberal do-nothing attitude, wouldn’t nothing ever get done.”
“It’s called patience, Georgie dear.”
“Well, I ain’t got none.”
“Obviously. And you‘re not exactly surpassing in the language department, either.” Suddenly, he looked on the verge of exploding.
“You know what, you--you--shut up, you! You’re a real smartass, you know that?”
“And you’re a real dumbass,” I countered.
“I really don’t like you,” he seethed.
“Yeah?” I offered a cynical little smile. “I really, really don’t like you.”
“Well, I really, really, really don’t like you.”
“How creative.” He was glaring at me again. That same unnerving stare he’d been giving me earlier. He took a step toward me, closing the space between us with one stride.
“You underhanded son of a bitch.”
“Every word you breathe is a lie,” I seethed.
“Is that the best you can come up with?” Perhaps not the best choice of words, given the situation. At this, he stepped still closer to me, putting barely an inch of space between us. When I moved to back away, I felt my back hit the wall, and then he closed the space between us again and I was trapped. He was so close to me, I could feel the ghost of his suit jacket whispering against me, feel the inexplicable heat from his body. His blue eyes blazed into mine again, ice bursting into flames--dangerous and volatile and oddly exhilarating. Some deep, dark desire of mine wanted to push him over the edge, see just how far he would go. And for whatever reason, I suddenly found it impossible to tear my eyes from his. Still, I had to say something.
“I hate you,” I snarled. He smirked in response. Cocky, as usual, with the slightest hint of malice.
“And I hate you more.” If it were possible, he moved even closer to me.
There was an awkward moment in which both of us stood face to face, practically nose to nose--neither of us moving. It was as though some force greater than us both held us there to that spot, keeping us grounded. What was this? Where was it coming from? I couldn’t put my finger on it. To this day, I still can’t explain what happened between us that night.
In the next beat, he moved and he was flush against me, the weight of his body pinning me hard against the wall. I regarded him questioningly, warningly, even--but I didn’t push him away. To be honest, I was curious as to his intentions, and was confident I could overpower him if it came down to it.
“What the hell do you think you’re going to do?” I demanded. He didn’t answer directly. But what he did do, however, wasn’t what I’d been expecting at all. Without warning, he leaned into me and pressed his mouth to mine--and an odd, curious thing happened. I kissed him in return.
All at once, it was as if the rational half of my brain had simply ceased to be. This man was my opponent, my political enemy, the man whose sole ambition was to steal the White House right from under me--and suddenly, none of that seemed to matter. And yet, all my mind could comprehend were his lips, hard and demanding against mine, his quick hands slipping underneath my suit jacket and running up my ribcage. A thousand questions whirled in my head. Why was he doing this? What was he thinking? Was this premeditated? And the most prevalent, why wasn’t I stopping him? But even as I questioned myself, I let my hands fall around his waist, squeezing gently. Nothing, I repeat, nothing about this is anywhere near right.
He held me tightly, arms locked around me as if he were afraid he’d lose me if he let me go. Vaguely, I had to wonder why it didn’t feel wrong. Unwarranted, my arms slid the rest of the way around his waist, holding his body close to mine.
“You know, George,” I said, arching an eyebrow at him. “For someone who hates me with a burning passion, you certainly have a strange way of showing it.”
“You know what your problem is?” He was leaning close to me, murmuring against my lips. “You don’t know when to speak, and when to shut up.” Before I could even think of formulating a quick-witted comeback, he made it a point to shut me up himself-- nipping teasingly at my lower lip before pulling me into another heated kiss. His mouth was hot and hard and hungry on mine, and I found myself falling faster and further than I had before. It was as if he held me captive under some sort of spell--his eyes held me just where he wanted me. Each reckless touch he wrought upon my body sent me reeling. Any shred of composure that I thought I’d possessed was slowly slipping away from my grasp, and it was all beyond my comprehension.
Suddenly, I realized, he was the one who had control, and I was doing little to nothing to stop it. He held me firmly in place, my back to the wall, the weight of his body pressing into me. His lips left mine and trailed brazenly from my jaw line to the side of my neck, finding a sensitive spot behind my ear. I nearly hit the ceiling when he did, biting my lip hard to keep from moaning aloud.
“Why are you doing this?” I grated out, the sensation of his mouth on that spot almost bringing me to my knees. Oh, this wasn’t good…
“Do you really have to ask?“ His swift fingers were working skillfully at the knot on my tie, then moving to the buttons on my shirt. Then, that blessedly talented mouth of his was attacking my collarbone, trailing kisses down my chest. This time, I did moan out loud.
“Oh, God--you don’t know what you’re doing to me--”
“I know exactly what I’m doing to you.” I had a feeling that he was telling the truth there--for the first time since beginning his campaign, I was sure. With a smirk, he locked those icy blue eyes on mine again, holding my gaze as he sank to his knees in front of me. “Mr. Vice President,” he said with a little twinge of cocky sarcasm, “I don’t know how to make my intentions any more clear.” He gave my thigh a suggestive squeeze and looked up into my eyes--and only then did I realize the magnitude of the situation between us. The repercussions, for one or both of us, could be devastating--
“This isn’t right,” I managed breathlessly, more to myself than to anybody. “George, we shouldn’t do something both of us are going to regret.”
“Too late for that.” He slipped a hand decadently up my inner thigh. “Besides, I didn’t see you doing anything to stop me.”
“Be that as it may--” I caught his hand before it reached its destination. “I don’t think you really want to do this. And I can’t imagine what the hell you’re trying to accomplish with this.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know. Maybe someday, I’ll let you in on it.”
Just as I was about to ask him just what the hell he was talking about now, and if perhaps the smell of Liz Taylor perfume and moth balls had finally gone to his head, fate intervened for the second time that night--this time, in the form of someone banging on the door.
Knock. Knock. Knock. Both of us exchanged a momentary glance before flying to opposite sides of the closet, respectively.
“Hey! Is somebody in there?” Karenna’s voice. At that moment, it was the sweetest voice I’d ever heard.
“Karenna? Honey?” I managed to keep my voice as level as possible, while I buttoned my shirt and searched on the floor for my tie, which had miraculously vanished. There was a momentary pause on her end, then her voice came again, muffled on the other side of the door.
“…Dad? Uh, what are you doing in the coat closet?” Funny story, really.
“It’s complicated. To make a long story short, the doorknob broke and the door won’t open from the inside, and now I--we’re--stuck in here…”
“We? Who else is in there?”
“Governor Bush is in here with me.”
“Really?” I could have sworn I heard her giggling on the other end. “That’s funny.” Yeah. A real riot. “Is there any way you might be able to open the door from out there?”
“I tried,” came her reply. “It won’t budge. Somebody must have done a real number on this doorknob.” I threw an accusatory look toward George, who managed a sneer at me in return. “Dad, I don’t think I can get you out of here myself--you two hang tight. I‘ll go find some help.”
“Okay, honey.” The sound of high-heeled footsteps, retreating quickly down the hallway. And then came the silence, awkward and heavy, descending over us. After a long moment, the quiet became almost stifling and I had to say something, anything, to keep from going insane. Well, more so, anyway. I’d say that my level of sanity at that moment was debatable. “So, are you going to tell anybody about this?” His eyes widened.
“No, George,” I replied at length, with a sigh. “I won’t. Besides,” I smirked, “I’ve got enough crap to use against you without pointing out the fact that you, my political adversary, practically jumped me in a coat closet.”
“In my defense, you didn’t seem to protest.” It was the most profound, most hard-hitting thing he had said to me all night, most likely because I knew he was right. And in all honesty, it scared the living hell out of me.
We had nothing to say to one another after that, falling silent again and remaining silent. Ten minutes later, Karenna returned with campus security and the fire department in tow, prepared to break us out. I could only hope the spectacle wouldn’t be overly publicized.
In those final moments of our ordeal, seconds before the fire department pried the door open, we exchanged a glance.
“Looks like we’re finally outta here,” I observed.
“Yeah,” he replied, and smiled genuinely at me. “This is it, I guess.”
“You confuse me,” I said, as the realization came to me. “More than any person in this world has ever confused me.”
“Somebody’s gotta do it.” He took my hand and clasped it in his own, just as the door came off its hinges. “See you in North Carolina, Mr. Vice President.” And with that, he simply turned and walked away down the hallway, as sure of himself as all the world could be--and leaving me more perplexed than I had ever been in my entire life.
This was going to take a while to process.
As I broke through the hoard of firemen and baffled campus security officers, assuring them all that yes, I was fine, I caught up with Karenna, who was looking oddly relieved and puzzled at the same time.
“I couldn’t find your mother’s coat,” I offered dumbly.
“Are you all right?” She placed a hand on my arm. “What happened in there?”
“Damned if I know. I’ll fill you in when I figure it out.” Thankfully, she didn’t ask questions, because I couldn‘t have answered them. I couldn’t even answer them for myself.
It is said that things happen for a reason, that the moments that define our history the most are the ones that simply…refuse to go away. As the years pass, we move on, carrying forward toward our own destinies, our own ends. But on the occasions that we give pause, we remember. In my case, on those nights when sleep refuses to come, I think--and all I think about is him.
When memories flood one’s mind, they can serve as a blessing or a curse. As for me? I’m not certain as to which category mine would fall into. I suppose that’s another question I still don‘t know the answer to--and I’m sure I never will.