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Until Next Year

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.



End of Story