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Until Next Year

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As we start down the long, narrow flight of stairs, gorged on Sisson's excellent food and homebrewed stout, I step up next to Gay and offer her my arm to steady herself. The week's nearly over and she's obviously running out of steam -- but the fact that she's here at all, only five months after a major stroke followed by brain surgery, says something about the lady's raw will power.

Everyone Gay knows has sent her letters and cards, probably a thousand or more, all told. But during her six weeks in Intensive Care and the following two months in therapy sessions, I've written her little notes and long discursive letters at least twice a week, interspersed with 'Get Well' cards both outrageously silly and dewily sentimental. One of the effects of the stroke was serious double vision, and her sister has told me that, after her sight cleared sufficiently, she sat in the big chair in her hospital room and read all my missives at once, chronologically.

Now she accepts the proffered assistance with a quick smile in my direction that seems to imply it's the most natural thing in the world. And her touch sends little *pings* radiating up and down my arm.

Then she says, half under her breath, "You've been watching me." So much for what I had thought was masterful subtlety. Of *course*

I've been watching her, every moment since she made her unexpected entrance at the conference earlier in the week. Whenever she seemed safely occupied with something or somebody else, I've studied her face, her profile, her tight helmet of very black hair, her long, tapering fingers -- everything about her. Eyes like obsidian set in pure white, topped by thin, parabolic eyebrows.

Wide mouth with mobile, almost cupid's-bow lips. Not-quite-even teeth which she flashes regularly and brilliantly. When something delights her, she doesn't emit a ladylike "tee-hee"; she guffaws, mouth wide open, in a way that gets everyone else laughing with her.

She didn't really ask a question but I somehow feel a response is required. So I look at her kind of sidelong and lift an eyebrow. "I'm afraid I have, Gay. Uh, should I apologize?" The "uh" is studied and she knows it. She gives my bicep a tiny squeeze which I can nevertheless feel in my knees.

"No; I think it's sweet." And I get another flash of that radiant smile. I hope the people up behind us on the stairs aren't close enough to hear but I don't want to break the moment by looking over my shoulder.

And then we've reached the front door of the establishment and Jack, a couple of steps ahead of us, is holding it open politely, and we're out on the sidewalk. Gay takes a self-conscious position in the middle of the walk so she can exchange goodbyes with everyone in the group. Dick has gone off to get his car, to drive Gay back to her hotel. The rest of us will take a leisurely hour to stroll back along the harborfront from Federal Hill, since no one's in a hurry this last night of the conference and all that food needs a chance to settle.

But everybody's leaving in the morning and most of us won't see each other in person until next year -- though we'll all be back online in a couple of days -- so everyone's taking the opportunity to hug Gay and tell her how really glad they are that she could make it to Baltimore and that they'll be talking to her on the net.

And every one of them means every word of what they're saying.

Gay is only thirty-four -- a sobering reminder of mortality for the majority of us who have a few years on her. But she's universally liked by everyone who has had a keyboard conversation with her ...

and loved by all who have spent any time with her in person. There was unspoken dread after the stroke that we might not ever see this lovely lady again. Or that, at best, she might survive as a paraplegic. Her astonishing rate and degree of recovery is almost as shocking as the stroke itself.

Then I see Dick slowly maneuvering his Volvo between the parked cars lining both sides of the narrow street. A few more minutes and Gay will be gone for the year. For obvious reasons, we haven't even been able to go off for a companionable walk-and-talk by ourselves this year, as we've managed to do at the past three conferences. I'm standing back out of the way, now, letting them all have their turns with the hugs and well-wishing. Besides, I have a lump in my throat that I don't believe I can talk around.

I'm thinking I'll just open the car door for her and then give her a smile and a parting squeeze of the shoulder. Dick stops and gets out, grinning over the car's roof at the sidewalk love-fest, which is now beginning to break up. (Dick is about my age and, like me, he loves his wife and kids ... but he, too, carries a torch for Gay and we all know it.)

People are stepping back to allow Gay access to her transportation -- and my way is blocked and Jacques leans out and opens the car door. Shit. There goes my chance at a final goodbye.

Gay steps off the curb and hugs Jacques, who gives her a peck on the cheek. Damn. Could have been me, I think. But then she glances around the little crowd on the sidewalk, sees me behind someone's shoulder, and holds out her hand.

I slip past the shoulder and take the hand and she draws me to her, apart from all her other friends. I find myself looking deep into those dark, liquid eyes and suddenly I'm running on automatic.

"C'mere," she says, too softly for anyone else to hear. Her arms slip up and around my neck and I find my hands sliding around her waist. My mind isn't working right, I think absently, because this can't possibly be happening.

Oh yes, it can. Gay's firm hands exert a light, steady pressure on the back of my neck, pulling my face down toward hers. There's no doubt at all about what she intends.

The rest of the group, all my friends and colleagues, have ceased to exist. So has Dick, and so has the car. So has Baltimore. The old line about falling into a woman's eyes is no longer just a line.

A fraction of a second before our lips touch, Gay angles her head slightly and closes her eyes. The contact is soft but firm and I wonder if I'm going to faint. This isn't just a quick, sisterly kiss, oh, no. She moves her mouth against mine and hums almost inaudibly in her throat. The sensation is something I haven't felt since I was twenty and seriously in love for the first time. I'm aware that some part of my mind is recording every nuance of every instant of this prolonged farewell, so I will be able to replay it again and again.

Gay's body is pressed against me and I'm reminded again just how shapely he really is for an otherwise small and slender woman (though my feelings toward her have always been more on the order of "courtly love" than overtly sexual). Her arms tighten for a few seconds as she flicks her tongue twice against my front teeth, like reading braille. Which is just as well, because my vision has becomes somewhat blurred. Our lips separate and she sighs lightly and stares back into my eyes. Then her mouth is at my ear and mine at hers.

"Mike, I've wanted to do that for two years, but it never seemed like the right moment. After all I've gone through this spring, I'm not going to worry ever again about a 'right moment'."

"I've thought about it, too," I reply in a matching whisper.

"But I would never have dared; thank God you did." I kiss her ear lobe lightly, quickly, and then ease out of the embrace before I can do something *really* stupid -- like proclaiming my undying devotion.

Gay smiles broadly and waves to everyone as she begins to step away. She's holding my hand again, just the fingers, and I wish wildly that I were going off with her, but no: I'll be back in Dallas tomorrow afternoon, as scheduled. She must be reading my mind because she pauses and reaches up to kiss me again, a light fairy touch, before she scrambles into the car and I close the door firmly.

And then Dick gets in, too, and they drive off. I've been watching Gay's face the entire time so I haven't seen his expression until just now. His bewilderment is almost comical.

He's known Gay much longer than I have and there's no way he could have expected the display he's just witnessed.

Then I look back at my friends for the first time in several minutes. Jack and Jacques are both staring, mouths open. Diane looks about to burst with curiosity. Emily's mind is working a mile a minute; it shows on her face. William and Martha have only met Gay in the flesh a few days before and don't quite seem to realize there's anything unusual in what has just occurred. The rest of the gang simply appears dumbfounded.

And all the way back to the Sheraton, the comradely chit-chat touches every subject except my apparent but unknown relationship with Gay. Those who have known me for some years are -- probably -

- pretty sure there's nosecret affair going on; it isn't the kind of thing I would do (...or so they have believed) and it *certainly* isn't the kind of thing Gay would do. Or, if she did, she would be thoroughly discreet about it. I can tell by the speculative glances I receive that they're replaying that goodbye kiss and wondering what the explanation could possibly be.

I smile as I replay it myself. My middle-aged-crazy fantasies have certainly been fulfilled -- and maybe that's the little gift Gay was giving me, by kissing me so publicly. I look back at my friends, looking at me, and I smile again.

Let 'em wonder.

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