July 23, 1994
For weeks before the thirtieth high school reunion, Kelly had debated about making the trip back to Vicksburg. She figured that Cameron would be there, of course, barring a war in the Middle East or some other international crisis. She didn't want him to think that she would go just to see him, although many others in the class would be there for that very reason. She also didn't want him to think she would stay home just to avoid him. Finally, she decided that having this debate with herself was still allowing him to control her life and she had vowed not to do that any more. In her heart, she really wanted to go and so she did.
Driving her vintage convertible across the Mississippi River bridge, Kelly was greeted anonymously with a colorful street banner proclaiming "Welcome to Vicksburg, Hometown of President Cameron Coulter."
Kelly had made reservations at a small inn off the main street, knowing that the splendidly-restored Vicksburg Hotel would be too crowded to suit her. Cameron, the Secret Service, the entire presidential party and everyone else who could afford it would be staying there. Kelly knew she had made the correct decision when she drove past the venerable building and saw hundreds of locals as well as tourists swarming all around.
A moment later, Kelly heard the distant sound of sirens, soon followed by the thunderous roar of every police motorcycle in Mississippi. She turned quickly down a side street and found an unobtrusive, though illegal, place to stash her car. Chastising herself for her interest in the spectacle, she walked briskly back down to the corner and watched as the presidential motorcade passed by, long black limousine after long black limousine, followed by the black Suburban "war wagon" that painfully reminded her of the ever-present danger to Cameron, even in his own hometown.
There would be ample security for the reunion itself. Everyone in the class, along with the one-per-person guest, had to have White House Security Clearance before receiving a registration confirmation packet in the mail. There were instruction letters and forms and much ballyhoo about souvenir coffee mugs and tee shirts that would be available. Vicksburg, the tourist city, was well-prepared for the arrival of its most famous son.
Kelly spent less time than she had planned in dressing for the evening, barely glancing in the mirror before leaving her room. She knew without confirmation that she looked good in her simple white silk blouse and ankle-length black skirt slit to the thigh. Walking the two blocks to the hotel in the early evening heat made her wish for a moment that she had worn her long blond hair up off her neck. Then, almost against her will, she remembered her mother's favorite saying, "Beauty must suffer." She chuckled at the breadth of ridiculous adages, old wives' tales and Italian superstitions she had unconsciously picked up from her mother.
"At least I inherited her great Italian skin," she mused aloud. At forty-six, Kelly's face was still as untouched by crow's feet as her mother's had been well into her fifties. It probably helped that Kelly usually kept her pale green eyes protected behind sunglasses to avoid squinting.
Her heart skipped a beat as she approached the Vicksburg Hotel and saw the big black Suburban "war wagon" up close. The door opened as she passed by and she was amazed at the amount of electronic equipment and gadgetry it held. A clean-shaven, crew-cut-type in his forties stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked at Kelly as if he intended to say something. She paused, smiled and nodded, then walked on as he stood silently beside the open door.
She thought about President Kennedy and, as always, said a quick prayer for Cameron's safety. She tried never to think about all the unknowns that could threaten him. Then she remembered Cameron's threat to her. His callous words about their life together cut into her again. "If you cooperate with them on the story," he had warned, "we will destroy you!" Kelly entered the hotel's ancient foyer with more anger than she wanted to acknowledge.
Apparently, everyone else had arrived early to go through the security clearance necessitated by their illustrious classmate. Also apparent from the sign-in sheet was that everyone else had brought the one allowed guest.
"We thought you'd changed your mind about coming, Kelly," smiled one of the hostesses for the evening. "Here's your name tag," she added, "not that you'll need it. You look exactly the same as ever."
"You, too," Kelly lied, smiling back at the unrecognizable, graying brunette who had gained a hundred pounds in the thirty years since graduation.
As she passed through the portable metal-detector security clearance, Kelly turned to one of the dozen uniformed guards. "I left my thirty-eight in my hotel room, in honor of Cameron," she said sweetly, "so, I'll need an escort when I leave. With whom should I arrange that?"
"I'll take care of it, ma'am," interposed an unusually tall man in a black suit who was standing behind the guards.
"Thank you," Kelly looked up at him. "You'll be easy to find."
Kelly entered the ballroom alone and felt hundreds of eyes staring at her. Everyone was already seated at the big round tables and, because it was an hour after the festivities should have started, they were watching the door, anticipating Cameron's entrance. Only a few couples were dancing at the far end of the room. Kelly was immediately grateful that the music was not too loud. For the first time, she wondered if she would find a dance partner. She strode purposefully through the room, hoping to chance upon a good place to sit.
Someone grabbed her hand as she walked by and squealed, "Kelly!"
The voice belonged to a tiny girl who had been in her World History class. Kelly could not recall that they had ever spoken in high school, but this person acted as if they were long-lost friends. "What's the latest with Cameron?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.
For the millionth time in her life, Kelly wondered what everyone knew.
"The latest with Cameron," Kelly answered knowingly, "is that Cameron will be late."
The eight people seated around the table laughed at her response, probably figuring that Kelly herself had detained him upstairs. She deftly changed the subject by asking if anyone had grandchildren and she knelt down beside the squeally woman and smiled politely for the interminable stories that followed.
A wave of silence washed over the room. Without standing up or turning around or looking toward the entrance, Kelly knew that Cameron had arrived. She imagined him standing tall and handsome in a navy blue suit, his light blue eyes taking in the whole ballroom, with its beautifully-refinished white walls, mirrored columns and brilliant chandeliers. She imagined that he was searching for her in the crowd of four hundred people, that his eyes were drawn to her as always, that he recognized her from the back, that he was focusing on her long blond hair, that he was walking past the first tables and coming directly to the table where she was, closer and closer until she could almost feel the heat from his body.
"Mr. President!" the squeally woman squealed, interrupting her own story and rising to her feet with the rest of the group.
"Excuse me," Kelly requested to no one in particular as she stood up, without turning toward Cameron, and walked away from the table. She avoided looking into the bright lights that suddenly came on and the video camera that was hired for the evening.
It was easy to find empty seats after that because half of her classmates were on their feet, trying to talk to Cameron, to introduce him to spouse or guest, and to have their pictures taken with him. Within a very few minutes, some woman asked Cameron to dance and the parquet dance floor became the place to be. Everybody was warming up and the music was good. Kelly wanted to dance, too, but thought she should avoid the area. Then she remembered her vow not to let Cameron run her life and so she looked around for a partner.
She saw Dan Hodges seated at a table with a pretty brunette who was younger than the class. The tall, now gray-haired Dan had always been a good dancer and Kelly watched to see if he would head for the floor. He didn't. After a while, Kelly walked over to greet him and he introduced her to his wife. Rachael was very sweet and Kelly found herself drawn into conversation with her. Dan offered to get them drinks. When he left, Kelly asked Rachael if she and Dan liked to dance.
"Dan loves to, but I don't dance at all," Rachael replied.
"Would you mind if I asked him to dance with me?" Kelly asked cautiously.
"Of course not!" Rachael exclaimed. "I'd be so happy! Dan will have much more fun if he doesn't have to just sit here all night."
Kelly couldn't believe her good fortune. Before long, she was having a great time dancing with Dan and then several others who asked her. She felt safe from Cameron on the dance floor, but, later, after the class picture was taken, Cameron started steering his partner-of-the-moment toward Kelly and striking up a conversation with her partner so that she would have to deliberately look in another direction to avoid him. She thought at first that she was imagining it, but it went on for hours and finally she was sure.
Just after midnight, dancing a slow one with Dan, her left hand on the back of his collar, Kelly felt Cameron approaching again. Moments later, he started talking to Dan. Kelly never looked at him. Then Cameron reached over and squeezed her hand as it lay on Dan's collar. She withdrew her fingers gently from his grasp and moved her hand to Dan's shoulder, out of Cameron's reach. He never changed the pace or tone of his conversation with Dan and, mercifully, the dance ended soon.
As they walked off the dance floor, Dan offered to buy Kelly a drink. She asked for plain water again and said she'd meet him at the table where Rachael was waiting. Dan disappeared in one direction and Kelly tried to make her way in the other. She was blocked by a close throng of classmates wanting time with Cameron, who had limited himself to about three minutes per person all night. Kelly had wondered if he were hooked up to some silent alarm that told him when to move on, but at the moment she was frustrated that she could not move anywhere. The crowd was too thick. Once again, she sensed that Cameron was behind her. She felt his hand gently grasp her forearm. Still, she didn't turn around.
Then, in a voice so sweet and solicitous that no one else would have recognized it as patronizing or condescending, Cameron whispered, "How are you?"
He might as well have repeated, "We will destroy you!"
The hurt and anger that Kelly had worked so hard to overcome surged upward from a depth she had never reached or recognized. She whirled around to face Cameron directly for the first time in two-and-a half years.
"You are such an ass-hole," she spit the words at him, "I can't believe you'd even bother to ask!"
At the word "ass-hole," the nearby crowd gasped and, simultaneously, a Secret Service agent reached toward Kelly. Cameron put up his arm to block the huge man from grabbing her and nodded to him, "It's okay."
Cameron reached for Kelly's hand and pleaded earnestly, "You've got to understand what I was going through. You have to understand what I was feeling at the time."
Neither Kelly nor Cameron appeared to notice that the crowd had become deathly quiet and was inching toward them.
"I'm sick of understanding what Cammie-boy is going through, what Cammie-boy is feeling! I've got a life and I've got feelings too, and mine are just as important as yours!"
Cameron nodded in agreement. As the crowd pressed closer to him, he took Kelly's arm. "We've got to talk," he said gently.
"I have nothing to say to you. After thirty years together, you threatened to destroy me, and you wouldn't even return my phone call!"
"Please, Kelly, talk to me now. You owe me that."
"I owe you nothing! You have no idea what I went through for you!"
"Tell me," he pleaded.
A blond female version of a Secret-Service type forced her way through the crowd and touched Cameron's arm. The time-keeper admonished him, "There are people who want to talk to you. Several of the women would like to dance."
Without taking his eyes from Kelly, Cameron waved the woman away.
"Tell them I'm tired of dancing," he said impatiently.
"But," she tried to persist.
"I'm tired of dancing," Cameron repeated firmly, never looking at the intruder.
No longer oblivious to the fact that he was making a scene, Cameron once more insisted that Kelly talk to him. This time, he turned her as if they were dancing and Secret Service agents motioned the crowd back. The people parted and Cameron escorted Kelly toward a couple of chairs placed side-by-side in front of a mirrored column. The austere men, with wires coming out of their ears, took their places a few feet away from Cameron, standing straight and tall with their arms crossed over their chests. No one dared approach.
Cameron and Kelly stood in front of the chairs, staring deeply into each other's eyes, saying nothing. Finally, Kelly sat down and so did Cameron, still searching her face.
"Tell me everything," he began, looking softly into her eyes.
Kelly averted her gaze, not sure if she could be this close to Cameron and keep her wits about her. She noticed that hundreds of people in the ballroom had returned to their tables and now sat with their chairs facing Cameron as if they were waiting for an after-dinner speech to begin.
"You wouldn't even call me," Kelly said quietly, trying to keep her voice even.
"Everyone was afraid you would tape the conversation," Cameron explained.
"Of course, like Sindy Towers did," Kelly responded sarcastically.
"I told them you were no Sindy Towers."
"I guess you didn't convince them. And, then there's the Sindy Towers affair itself, Cameron. That hurt me more than you know."
"It's all lies," Cameron replied too quickly. "How could you believe it?"
"Her story sounded real enough to me. She was pretty specific. She even said that you never wore a condom."
"Everyone knows I never wear a condom. She could have heard that anywhere."
"That's just great, Cameron. 'Everyone knows.' A fine example that is! But it all sounded like your pattern to me." Kelly finished quietly, "I believe her."
Cameron tightened his jaw. "She was nothing," he insisted.
Kelly stared at him and didn't say anything.
"Really, she was nothing."
"She sounded like something to me, from the tabloids and the television, but, I don't want to hear any more of your lies about it, and I definitely don't want to hear the truth."
"Her story simply isn't true. Look, Kelly, don't you see? If someone prints a story and even one word of it isn't true, then the story isn't true. I can just say that it isn't true, and that's that."
Kelly shook her head. "You've always tried to get away with that, Cameron, but it's going to come back to haunt you some day."
"At least they didn't print our story," Cameron tried to be upbeat. "Those tabloid people are such sleaze."
Kelly recognized his life-long pattern of changing the subject, and finding someone else to blame, but decided not to drag that up again.
"I never thought I'd defend a tabloid, Cameron, but you're wrong. The man who talked to me was an incredible reporter who had done his homework thoroughly. He had the story nailed. The whole story, Cameron. It was remarkable. He knew things I had forgotten."
Cameron looked like he had just been kicked in the stomach.
"Still, those tabloid people can't be trusted," Cameron insisted.
Kelly shook her head. "You're the one who threatened to destroy me," she reminded him quietly. "Am I supposed to trust you? That tabloid reporter had more finesse, and certainly more integrity, than anyone who was working for you! If you had called me back, I would have suggested that you hire the guy."
"Why didn't he print the story?" Cameron wanted to know. "What did you do?"
"I can't tell you why he didn't publish it, but I can tell you that I turned down a half million dollars for your head on a platter," Kelly's voice quivered. "It's too bad that you don't know what the word 'loyalty' means. You threatened to destroy me. You wouldn't even call me because some back-room wimps convinced you that I would record the conversation. Cameron, you don't even know who I am."
The look that Kelly gave him pierced Cameron to his soul. Tears welled up in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks. He sat there unashamed and cried openly.
"I'm sorry, Kelly. I am so sorry." He said nothing else until the tears stopped. Kelly sat still and watched him, wondering about this public performance, wondering about the tears they had cried in private. Were these tears real? Was anything about him real anymore? Could anything he said or did be trusted? He still hadn't addressed the issue of his threat to destroy her. Kelly realized that he never would.
"If you're sorry, Cameron, then, of course, I forgive you, but I'm sure that's of little concern to you now. You're the President of the United States. You're the most powerful man in the world. You have everything you ever wanted."
"Oh, Kelly," he shook his head, "if you only knew."
Kelly sighed, "I do know, Cameron. I told you years ago that it wouldn't be enough. If it comes from outside yourself, it will never be enough."
"You were always so wise," Cameron marveled aloud.
"Right. I was so wise that I was at your beck and call for thirty-three years, until you decided I might get in the way of what you really wanted. Well, I went to Washington and I watched you being inaugurated and then I closed the book."
"You came to my inauguration?" Cameron asked incredulously.
"I didn't see you there."
"I didn't intend for you to see me."
"Then, why did you go?"
"I loved you so much, Cameron, that I wanted to see you get what you always wanted. I was happy for you, even though I couldn't be a part of it. I was really happy for you."
Once again, Cameron's eyes filled with tears.
"Kelly, Kelly, my Kelly," he whispered. "I had no idea."
"You never did, Cameron. It's sad, but you never did."
They sat in silence for several minutes. Kelly inadvertently noticed the crowd again. Except for a few couples on the dance floor, no one was moving. The room was eerily quiet and even the music seemed subdued.
Kelly felt compelled to change the subject. "I finished my book," she announced matter-of-factly.
"Is it still autobiographical?" he wanted to know.
"All first novels are autobiographical," she reminded him. "I've decided to write a trilogy, covering the same time period from different perspectives. Some of the plot lines will overlap and some will be completely new. It will all be somewhat autobiographical, though. I certainly had more than enough material for this first one."
"Am I still in it?"
"Am I recognizable?"
She nodded again.
"Do I run for President?"
"Do I win?"
"You never could stand to lose an election, could you?" Kelly laughed. "How could I make you lose? Actually, the story ends before the votes are counted."
"So, now I guess you'll publish it," Cameron sighed, tightening his jaw in his age-old habit. "Just put the hook in and rip my guts out."
Kelly looked into his eyes for a long time before she answered, "No, Cameron, I know what that feels like, and I wouldn't do it to you."
For the third time that hour, Kelly saw tears forming in his eyes. This time, she felt them in her own as well. They sat and cried quietly, not touching, with hundreds of people watching and his security men standing three feet away. Kelly wiped her tears carefully with her fingertips so that her mascara wouldn't run. She was tempted to reach out to Cameron and wipe his too.
Instead, after a long while, she questioned, "I suppose now you'll ask me not to publish it?"
Cameron shook his head.
"No," he spoke quietly. "I could never ask that."
"The book won't hurt you, Cameron. It's fiction. If someone asks you about it, you can say you don't have time to read that kind of fluff."
"I could never say that about your work," Cameron replied defensively.
"Call it revenge, then, the fury of a woman scorned," she suggested. "Or, perhaps you could say that you read it and you think it's great that your childhood friend wrote such a love story out of her unfulfilled fantasies about you."
Again, Cameron shook his head.
"It's a true story, isn't it?" he asked.
"Not by your definition of true, though it's as psychologically true as I could make it. I suppose a factually true story would sell more books, but of course, that's not why I wrote it. As I told you years ago, the writing of it was my therapy. The facts are incidental. God knows, it would be too much to go back and reconstruct the past thirty-five years. Too many dates, too many people. Too many people to hurt."
"You're an extraordinary woman, Kelly. I've been a fool."
Kelly laughed, "I'm not going to argue with that."
He took her hand.
"Come to Washington. Live on the Hill. Be near me again. It will be different, I promise."
Kelly patted his hand firmly, "No, Cameron. The answer is, now and forever, 'no.' I won't live like that. Not anymore. Not for you. Not for anyone. It isn't right and I deserve better. I've changed, Cameron. You don't even know who I am." She searched his eyes and added quietly, "I'm not sure you know who you are."
Kelly stood up slowly and Cameron rose with her.
"Say you'll think about it," he pleaded, reaching for her other hand.
"It's too late, Cameron," Kelly sighed, shaking her head. "It's too late." She squeezed his hands, then let them go, and whispered, "God be with you."