A Thousand Words A Day

A writing journal _____________________________ PROFESSORBLOG@HOTMAIL.COM

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

Reader, writer, podcast listener, and TV watcher. And real nice guy.

Saturday, November 30, 2002

NaNoWriMo, Day 30
Word count, start of day -- 49,900
It was great. Everyone was nervous but me. Everyone was gossiping by me. Of course, Carrie was neither nervous nor gossiping, but she was part of the announcement and not the audience. I figured that meant she didn't count. The rest of us accountants, along with the entire staff of the Center, was in one end of the cafeteria. Six seats were seat out at two tables. A podium was between the two tables. The three people I recognized were Carrie and Brian, of course, and I think the guy in the perfect suit was the administrator of the Center. The only time we ever saw him was to deliver bad news. No wonder all the employees were nervous.

Carrie and Brian did not speak at this meeting, but they were introduced all the same. I applauded loudly for both and even winked at him. He did not wink back, of course, but I do think he smiled at me. The administrator did all the talking. I knew what he was going to say, but I still had trouble understanding what he was saying. He was not a good public speaker. Some managers were, but this one most definitely was not.

They then broke us up into functional units to discuss the implications of the purchase. Carrie began by restating the administrator's message in common English. "We have agreed in principle to purchase a pair of similar facilities downstate from a large chain that owns more than two dozen such facilities. Our administrative functions, of which we are a part, will maintain operations at Canterbury Corporation. The corporate entity will then own the operations side of this facility, which will still be known as the Canterbury Retirement Center. The other two facilities will change their names to include the Canterbury identity and their location. So they will be known as Canterbury Springfield and Canterbury Greenville." She asked for questions. There were none. We probably just did not know enough what to ask.

She then turned the meeting over to Brian, to "explain some of the changes that are coming and what we will need to do to prepare."

He stood and thanked us all for being here. You're welcome, baby. I had such anticipation before this meeting. We were going to lunch after this, and I was so excited I was almost shaking. I was like a schoolgirl getting ready for the prom. In some way, I think the absence really did make our hearts grow finder. Maybe it's that whole tested by fire thing. We had been tested and we had passed.

He explained that a separate firm would be coming in in the next month to study and then implement the new accounting system. Our office would handle the corporate accounting and the accounts for this location. But we would also have access to the records of the two other locations. "You have heard of having two sets of books?" he asked with a grin. "Well, congratulations, you will be keeping four sets of books." I did not think this was strictly true, but it was a clever way to explain the differences that were coming.

"Why do we need another company to set up the new system?" the payroll clerk asked. "Can't your firm just do it?"

Brian looked at her and held up two fingers, the old peace sign. "There are two reason we can't do it. One, Arthur. Two, Andersen." A chuckle ran throughout the room. "Actually, that is true. There are new limits on additional services that auditors can legally provide their clients."

I coughed back a laugh. What would the SEC think of the additional services he had provided me?

Friday, November 29, 2002

NaNoWriMo, Day 29
Word count, start of day -- 48,800
I can't believe that I hadn't not called her. I can't believe that I had not spoken to her. It had been eight, maybe nine weeks. But I saw her as soon as I got Gwen out of the car. To be honest, I saw a hot redhead and hoped it was Annie. Maybe I did not know it was her right away, but I did decide to walk straight up to her, just in case it was her. Then, when I knew for sure that it was Annie, I had ten to fifteen seconds to decide what to say and how to behave. I considered casual. I considered repentant. I even considered aloof.

I guess I settled on casual. And I guess it worked. The afternoon was pleasant enough. I even pumped Natalie afterward for info and reactions. "Did you have fun?" I asked her.

"Oh, yeah," she said enthusiastically, before turning serious. "She is a very good sand builder."

This was high praise coming from Natalie, a girl who would live in a sandbox if she could. "Erin seems friendly. Maybe we can do something with her again some time."

"Great," Natalie said, clapping her hands in front of her.

I had the same reaction myself. Maybe it ran in the Norton genes. "I sometimes work with her Mom, Annie. So maybe we will be able to schedule something."

I had told Annie that I would be at the Center in the next week or two. "I am so glad that I saw you here first, though. If could not have been this casual, this peaceful." I was struggling to find words to describe the day. "It would have been very uncomfortable if I first saw you in the office." I shook my head at the thought. "I can't believe I almost let that happen."

Annie had pulled me into her arms are that point. "But it didn't happen that way."

It was a simple statement that I imputed a grand profundity to. We were back at that mystical connection thing I thought I had felt before. Call it fate, call it coincidence, or just call it dumb luck. Whatever it was, I was just going to ride with it.

"What's up at my office," she asked. "Are we going to be bought out?" She seemed a little nervous at this thought.

I chuckled. She was fishing for information, it was clear that's what she was doing. But that was no reason for me to not give her any information. "No, it's not that. The Center is going to be a purchaser, not a purchasee."

She took that in. "Is that a good thing for us?"

"Well it's a good thing for me, and probably a good thing for you." She asked me to explain this comment. "Well, your accounting department will get more work, you may get more workers, and you may get more responsibilities. Do you want to be a supervisor?"

"Sure, a raise and a promotion? Of course."

"Not everyone does," I pointed out. "Extra responsibilities, too. But if you are interested, you will probably have a chance to be a supervisor, at least a little while down the road."

"That's great," she said. "I'll be needing the money," she said. I took this as a reference to her separation, but I let it go without comment.

"And it's good for me," I went on, "in that if I can shepherd this deal through, my stock at the firm will rise, too."

"A win-win?" she asked.

"I sure hope so." The Center had way bigger plans than this in the next year or two, and at least I kept those secrets. I let her know that the purchase would be announced next week or the week after. I pledged her to secrecy, and also told her I'd let her know if there were any changes I would let her know that. If it went well, there would be an announcement at the Center, and I would be there afterwards to answer questions for the accounting department and explain what they would need to do during the transition. And we would have a lunch together. Or two, if I could find a reason to stretch myself out to two days.

When Natalie and I arrived at home, she announced with gusto that the "answer phone" was blinking. Most of the messages were usually junk or hang-ups, but ever since my mother left a message for Natalie and only Natalie, she enthusiastically announced any time we found the message light

blinking. And this time, it was a message for Natalie, sort of.

They must have called from the park itself. It sounded like a pay phone, and it was only twenty minutes after we left. A little girl's voice cracked. Haltingly, we heard, "Hello, Natty, this Erin. I have fun today at the park." Then we heard some whispering, then Erin's voice came on the tape again. "Right, I know, mom. I hope maybe we can see each other again soon. I liked playing together." There was three seconds of silence. Well, three seconds of ambient park noise.

Then a strong female voice I recognized came on the recording. She spoke slowly, knowing that she was talking to both Natalie and me. "Yes, Brian, this is Annie, Erin's mom. We both wanted to say again that we like playing with you two today. We both liked seeing you and hope to again soon. We don't want as much time to pass before we see you again, okay?" She left their phone number and then both yelled "goodbye" into the phone before hanging up.

I eyed Natalie, who listened carefully to every word of the message. Of course, it was for her! "Well," I asked," what do you think? Do you want to play with them again?"

She was enthusiastic in her response.

"Well, Natalie, I can't promise, but I will try to give them a call in a few days, all right?"

My daughter agreed with me, then wagged her finger in my face. "But don't you forget, Daddy."

"I won't forget, Natalie, you don't have to worry about that. I won't forget."

Thursday, November 28, 2002

NaNoWriMo, Day 28
Word count, start of day -- 47,400
What kind of a heel was I? I'll tell you what kind of heel I am. My wife has been dead a month and I miss my girlfriend more. What a low-life.

I had to model responsible grief for my daughter. It was far too soon to appear to have moved on, despite the fact that I had moved on before her death. A month ago I was ready to leave Gwen for Annie, but now that Gwen's gone I can't bring myself to even call Annie. Somehow, that would be inappropriate. Just tell me the rules, someone, and I will be glad to follow them. Just tell me the rules, that's all I ask.

But I also knew I had to model acceptance for Natalie, to lead her past her grief and back into joy. She was resilient, and always had been. It was my greatest hope that this would not be more than she could handle. I wanted her to find her sense of joy and hope and wonder again. But I had to find mine first. I had hoped to with Annie. But I wasn't ready yet. And I wasn't even ready to tell her that I wasn't ready yet.

I did not originally intent to not speak with Annie. That part had just happened. Between making arrangements, family coming in, the service, taking care Natalie, I could not find time to call her. I had no idea what to say to her, anyway. I got the card from the Center, and I was all ready to call and thank her, until I noticed that she had not signed it. A few days passed without contact and it seemed that every day that passed made it harder and harder to pick up that phone.

Not that my feelings for Annie had changed. Far from it.

Once I got back into a routine, she occupied my thoughts constantly. Memories of past events that we had shared, memories of future plans I had only imagined. But I was paralyzed. First it had been with grief, not it was with fear.

Maybe it's a good thing we did not have sex. The acts that we performed on each other may not forge the same bond between souls that intercourse does. Not having crossed that bridge, maybe there was no bridge that connected us at all.

But I could not believe that. I could not believe that the only thing we had in common is that we were married folks screwing around. Maybe the fact that I no longer shared her status as cheating spouse changed some dynamic between us. No, that couldn't be it. Of course, it was true that she had always been the leader of this relationship, always the strong one. She got out of her marriage the hard way, and maybe I had gotten out of mine the easy way. I never had to prove my strength by leaving. Maybe she thought I had gotten off easily.

I knew that I would see her again. She still worked at Canterbury, and Canterbury was still my main client. There were no more classes scheduled for me to teach, but I would certainly be out there for the audit and the M & A work. And I would see her then. But I really did not want that first encounter to be forced, or to be in a setting where we could not talk. I just wanted to see her by accident. Really on accident, not a planned meeting disguised as an accident.

I wanted it to be casual. I wanted it to be natural. I wanted it to be like it was before.


My breath caught in my throat. My heart came this close to stopping altogether.

It was probably more than a hundred but I knew it was Brian. Not just any old dad and any old daughter. They were at seventy feet. I recognized them both and then I was sure. Look away, Annie, look away. They were at forty feet. Find Erin and keep both eyes on her. He has to be the one to make the first move. Don't even look up. Don't make any kind of eye contact at all. Sit still. Don't-

"Hey," I heard his light voice dance softly in my ear as he took a seat on the same bench I was on. He was at the other end of the bench, but it was the same bench.

I kept my eyes straight ahead, eyeing the jungle gym and the swing set. "Hey," I answered, trying hard to match his exact tone.

"Erin looks good," he said sweetly. "She is really growing tall."

It was true. Whether it was just idle conversation between parents or whether he actually noticed that she had shot up three or four inches, I did not know. But it was true, and it softened my heart. "Yes, she is. She is doing real well. And how's Natalie?"

He paused. Maybe it was too deep a question for him. "She's doing fine, I think. You know, as fine as a girl can do." Then he turned it around on me. "How are you?"

I felt like he had scooched closer to me on the bench, but I was still looking ahead, straight ahead. "I'm okay, We are doing fine," I answered in an honest conversational tone. I wanted this so much to go well, but he had a part to play in it, too.

"Annie," he said in a cracking voice," I am just so sorry about-"

I turned and he was there right next to me, and I threw my arms around him. He had passed my test. I admit that it was a stupid test, but at least it was my stupid test. And Brian X. Norton has passed my stupid little test.

We broke the embrace and just sat there together. We were on the seat, inches apart from each other. He pointed over to the sandbox. "They seem to remember each other," he said. Erin was working with Natalie on an intricate sand project. We both turned towards each other and he lightly touched my cheek. "Do you remember?"

I nodded, then burst into tears. Tears of sorrow for the time we had lost. Tears of sympathy for his and Natalie's loss. Tears of joy to be with him again. I looked at him and this time I was the one who needed to apologize. He cut me off just as I had cut him off.

"Not today, Annie, not today. All of that stuff we can talk about later, some other day. Let's just, wait, hold on, check this out." He pointed across the little park.

Natalie was jogging our direction, Erin just a step behind her. Neither looked very stable as they ran, but they made it to our bench without incident.

"Dad," Natalie said to Brian, "This is that girl we know. My friend, do you remember? Look, dad, it's my friend." She stopped and turned to Erin. "What's your name?"

I caught my laugh before it came out. It was never good to laugh at your children when they were not trying to be funny. Erin spoke her name clearly and slowly to her new friend.

"I know, Natalie, this is my friend here." He then made introductions all the way around. The girls asked if they could keep playing with each other.

"It's two o'clock. It's a Saturday. Play as long as you want to." I saw nod to Natalie. The girls headed out to the swing sets.

He turned to me and put an arm around me. I leaned into him and he pulled me even closer. "I know we have a lot to talk about. It's serious stuff, no kids around kind of stuff." He looked at me and I nodded. "But today, can we just watch our kids play?"

I nodded. That was just fine with me, too.

It was a great afternoon. We watched our kids play. We put our arms around each other some. We covertly held hands. We were together, just together. There was work for us to do. There were conversations for us to have. There were decisions we had to make. But right then, right there, it was good to just be with him again.

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

NaNoWriMo, Day 27
Word count, start of day -- 46,200
"How can you possibly blame yourself for this?"

I dropped my head into my hands. I was just barely controlling myself. This was my third session with the counselor since I heard the news about Gwen's death. The news flew around the accounting department at Canterbury like a cannon shot. Dr. Alba was a woman I had seen a few times last year, too. She was a very good listener. I thought she would be someone good to talk to about all of this stuff I was dealing with.

"She was obviously a troubled person, from what you've told me," the psychologist persisted.

"I know," I answered, "but I can't help thinking I was part of the trouble she was having."

"Did she know you were having an affair with her husband?"

We had spent out entire first session together fighting over what to call my relationship with Brian. We were not "sleeping together" because we had not had sex. We fought over that issue half our time, whether we had had sex or not. I passed on the term "lover" for the same reason. The best we could come up with, that we could agree on, was "having an affair." It was undefined enough to fit what we were doing, but had a sense of relationship, a sense of ongoing, a sense of continuation.

Of course, since that night nothing had continued. Brian and I had not spoken. Neither of us had tried to contact the other. I could not even bring myself to sign the card. Carrie had brought the sympathy card for us all to sign from the accounting department. All I could do was graffiti some artwork in the corner. A little heart was all I could put on the card. He would have to search hard to even find it. Then he had to notice it. Then he had to interpret it. No wonder he had not called since then. And now I was so confused I did not know what to do. So I had come to see Dr. Alba.

"No, she did not know about me," I answered her. But then I had corrected myself. "Well, she knew about me, I mean we had met, but she did know about Brian and me. Being together, I mean, she did not know about us, no." We had agreed to not tell our spouses about us unless we both agreed to it.

"Do you think she suspected?"

"She was jealous of me, but that was months and months ago, before we even started a relationship."

The psychologist nodded and jotted something down on her pad. "But if she didn't know, then you were not responsible. Can you understand that?" She looked me straight in the eyes. "Not can you feel that?" she said, tapping her chest, "but can you understand that?" She tapped her forehead.

I nodded. "I guess so." It made sense. I knew what she was getting at.

"As long as you think that way," she said to me, "you'll eventually feel that way."

I nodded again. Dr. Alba had good little expressions like that. Things I could really grab hold of. Things that were really helpful to me.

"Do you think this is the end of your relationship with Brian?"

I closed my eyes and shuddered. "I hope not."

"But you think it might be?"

"Of course."

"Why do you say that?"

I looked at her like she was from another planet. "Why?" I exploded on her. "Why? Because he has not spoken to me since that night. Why else would he not call me? He does not want to see me?" I sighed, my breath caught and myself calmed back down.

"Is there any other possible reason why he has not called you?"

I stared at her dumbly.

"Let me ask you this, Annie. Do you consider Brian a respectful person? Or is he sort of polite in an old-fashioned sort of way?"

I thought about this and told her that sounded about right. "I mean, he is a decent guy and like order."

"Propriety? Would you say he likes things to be proper?"

I nodded. "I think so."

"He may consider it improper to call you so short a time after his wife's death. I admit, it may be a little of an old-fashioned attitude, but it's not of the question. He may just be acting appropriately for the way he views the world."

I nodded and admitted that might be so.

"One of the problems with relationships that are not socially sanctioned is the lack of socially accepted norms." Dr. Alba may have realized that she was speaking over my head. When she continued, it was in language I could better understand. "People who are living together, gay couples, and affairs, for example. These are relationships that do not have the same social status are married couples. Therefore, when the relationship ends, there is similarly no social safety net. In your case, you and Brian have no public status and are there no accepted rules for how you deal with things in your relationship.

I nodded slowly, digesting this. She was good. "Yeah, there are no rules for how I should behave."

"And there are no standards to measure Brian's performance against."

"I guess that's true. It's just so confusing."

"Let me ask you something else," she went on, changing the subject. "Who has been the aggressor in this relationship?" My silence revealed that I did not quite get the question. "Who made the first move?" She clarified. "Who kissed whom first?"

"I did. On both of those counts."

"Why do you think he didn't make these moves? Men are usually the aggressors. Not as much as the old stays, but that old stereotypes is still pretty true."

"Well, he was married," I offered as my defense.

"That didn't stop you," she said bluntly.

I flared up at this statement, but then realized she had not meant it as an insult. It was just a true statement. "No, it did not stop me."

"Again, why didn't he make the move on you?"

These sessions always made me think about things I would never otherwise think about. I appreciated Dr. Alba for that. "Because it wasn't proper."

She nodded. "You can certainly argue that responding to your advances was not proper, either, but I would argue that being the aggressor is less proper, at least in his mind."

We talked about this and related topics until the end of our time together. I left the fifty-minute session with an eased mind. Dr. Alba made sense of Brian's inaction.

I ended up less angry at Brian that I had been. I thought I was ready to deal with him again. But I also decided that this time I would not be the aggressor, I would not be the one to approach him. I was prepared to wait for him, but if he really wanted to speak with me, this time he could make the first move.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

NaNoWriMo, Day 26
Word count, start of day -- 43,600
"I talked to Gwen," he said.

I panicked. "About us?"

He shook his head. "No, about us." I gave him a confused look. What had he just said? "I mean, Gwen and me."

"You talked to her about the two of you?" I thought this was it, but I needed to make sure.

"Right. I didn't say that well, did I?"

"No, I just wanted to know for sure."

I had not asked him about his situation at home. It was really none of my business. Sure, it was sort of my business, but really it was none of my business. I was confused about all of this. "How did she take it?"

"She took it with heavy drinking," he said bitterly.

I shook my head. "You're worried about her."

"Of course, and about Natalie, too."

We were working our through a pot roast that I had made the day before, on Sunday. Brian swung by after work for a "private date," as we had been calling these. Between his schedule and mine and Erin's, we had only been able to do this three times. This made four. The first, was watched 'Saint Elmo's Fire.' The second, we watched 'This Is Spinal Tap,' a hilarious movie that I had seen before. It was on top of his list. The third, like tonight, was a quick weeknight dinner.

"Has Natalie noticed any problems?"

"She asked why her mother has been so sick lately." Brian's eyes were downcast. I hurt for him, hearing him tell the tale. "I told her it was still from the accident."


"What?" he asked.

"We see a lot of people in the health care world who self-medicate. To deal with pain through drinking or illegal drugs or over-the-counter stuff, whatever."

Brian nodded his head and admitted that sounded like Gwen. I talked a little about my situation, how Dennis and I were working our arrangements out.

"Sounds pretty cordial," he said.

"All things considered, I suppose it is," I agreed. The one lawyer I had talked to said I was letting Dennis get off the hook too easy. He talked about Dennis' retirement plan at the chemical company, his wine collection, all of these assets I had a right to. But I was the one who walked out, I told the lawyer. I told him I did not think I had a right to any of these things.

We moved past the serious discussions and chatted about work. He was being very responsible and not spilling the beans to me about high-finance things going on at the Center. "I will tell you in advance," he promised, "but only about an hour in advance." He winked at me.

I threw up my hands. "I give up." I was at the sink, scraping off the dishes and adding to the stack. I had a large pile that needed to go into the washer.

"You give up pretty easily," I heard him whisper into my ear. He had taken me by surprise, wrapping his arms around my waist and nuzzling the back of my neck. "Are you ready to surrender to me?"

I dropped the knife in the sink and grabbed a cloth to dry my hands. "I surrender, Brian." I whispered. I felt him push the hair away from my ear with his mouth, then take my lobe into his mouth. He flicked at it with his tongue, back and forth, a move that sent surprising spasms through my body. I was already reacting.

In one move, he bent me back and swept me off my feet and into his arms. Gracefully, without letting either my head or feet bump the walls, he deposited me on the sofa in the living room. He stood at the end of the couch, looking down on me. He bent down and kissed me, and I felt his hands roam down my chest. Hmmm, I liked this. Be aggressive, Brian. I felt my body respond to his touch. He ran his hands across my top, then down, then back over again. I laughed to myself. I guessed he was trying to get to the edge of my bra. The lack of straps and cups were baffling him. He moved his hands down further, towards the top of my p[ants. I felt him tug my shirt out partway and feel under it. He disconnected from my lips and moved to kneel next to me. "What are you wearing/" he asked in sincere curiosity.

I laughed. "My underwear?"

He nodded.

I sat up enough to untuck the shirt all the way around, then pulled up a few inches up my belly. I pinched the material and pulled it away from my belly an inch, then let it snap back into place. "It's sort of a leotard, a one-piece body suit thing." He was still confused, trying to figure it out. "From Victoria's Secret," I added, trying to be helpful. "I like the way they feel."

He kissed my tummy through the mesh and reached his hands around to arch my back. "I like the way they feel, too." He was getting me so turned on, and I squirmed a little as he lifted me up. I squeezed my legs together and closed my eyes. I wanted him to do what we wanted. He pushed my top up over my breasts, then we both worked together to remove it. He kissed my breasts through the mesh of the body suit, then massaged them gently and raised his lips to meet mine.

"You have an amazing body," he said. I brought my hands up to his waist and pulled him into me. I reached for his belt and fly, but he pushed me away. "Not today," he said softly. I was confused, a little disappointed, but didn't say a thing. He seemed to know what he was doing, and I liked it. I felt the little tug on my jeans and lifted my hips enough off the sofa for him to slide my pants to my ankles.
I closed my eyes and let myself totally relax, so I could receive whatever he wanted to give me, to let him do whatever he wanted to do to me. Okay, bud, you said you enjoyed this, and even said you were good at it. Do your stuff, Brian, do your magic.

"You were as good as you said you would be," I said, twenty minutes later, when he had joined me on the sofa. It was a tight fit, but I liked having him so close.

"Glad you approve," he said. "That is just about my favorite thing to do."

"I liked it, I liked it." I stroked his shoulders. I had come nearly as soon as his tongue touched me, as I let loose months of pent-up emotions. The second time was slower, completely the result of Brian's work. Now I was blissfully relaxed. Mind, body, and soul were at complete rest. I wanted this single moment to last forever. But I knew he had to be leaving soon. Our time was just about up.

"Thanks for having me over," he said, standing.

"It was nice to have you," I said. "Nice to have you over, I mean," I said with a sly smile. Then I kissed him. "I'll see you later."

"I will let you know," he turned, then called out over his shoulder. "Hey, can I use your telephone? I want to check my messages."

I stood and pulled my top back on. "Sure."

I watched him as he phoned. "Oh, no," he muttered. I saw the blood drain from his face. He closed his eyes and looked panicky. "Not again," he said, looking down. "Not again."

"Oh, no," I said. It may have happened again. I tried to get Annie's attention. She was moving my direction with a look a concern on her face. I pantomimed a pencil and pad. She got it nor me by the time the second message had started. This one was from the school after-care program. Natalie was still there. I checked my watch It was half past seven, and the call had come at seven. Natalie must be worried sick. The thought made me shudder. Hadn't that kid been through enough of her mom's drama already?

I had to finish the second message, then wait for the tape to cue back up again to listen again. I had about a minute. I eyed Annie. "It's Gwen again."

"Another accident?" She put a hand up to her mouth.

I shook my head. "No, she had some sort of episode at work. She passed out or something." I held up my hand. The message was reset. I listened again, jotting down the info. They had found her unconscious at her desk near closing time and called 9-1-1. She was still unconscious when they took her to Holy Cross.

I was able to get the school and promised that I would be there by eight. The woman who ran the program and stayed with Natalie was a real heroine. I thanked her profusely and hung up.

I eyed Annie and shook my head. It was grim news and I know I was not keeping it out of my face. "Do you need help?" she asked. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

"What?" I said, but then it clicked. "No, I'm fine. Thank you, though. I have to go." She may have said something else, but I don't really remember. My mind was already clicking into autopilot mode. I knew what to do automatically, what to feel, what to think. I had just gone through this same routine three months ago.

I picked Natalie up, who was in a pretty good mood all things considered. It was a blessing to have an even-tempered child. I slipped the woman who stayed a twenty for her time. I called our neighbors from the school and was able to drop her off there. I called the hospital from there, but they were tight-lipped. I would not get any news until I showed up.

I felt sheepish pulling in to the Starbucks on the way to the hospital. I felt horrible doing it, but I needed the caffeine to make it through another long night at the hospital. As long as nobody I knew saw me there I would not come off looking like such a cruel loser.

The hospital process was just the same as before. An admitting nurse with paperwork, a call to a nameless doctor, a hard seat in a crowded waiting room. I scanned the area and found no uniformed police officers waiting for me. That was a change for the better.

When I was finally approached, it was by a portly man in a white coat and a young trim man in a suit. A doctor and a, what? I couldn't tell what.

They pulled up chairs to me, making an informal circle. The man in the white coat introduced himself as Dr. Kirobay. His eyes had a practiced downcast look. "I assure you we did everything we could."

He let me digest this. I had seen enough episodes of 'E.R.' to know what that sentence meant. "She never woke up," I said, just knowing that this was true.

Dr. Kirobay nodded. She blacked out some time after four, from what we could tell. The Emergency Medical Techs were not able to revive her, and we were not able to either, even with the advanced equipment we have here. Her brain function just stopped, completely stopped. It was overloaded, it just shut itself down."

I nodded, feeling angry tears well up in me.

The doctor went on. "We don't know whether she cracked her head when she passed our or what exactly happened. There were a lot of bruises on her." He eyed me with what I could only judge to be suspicion. But I got it, I knew what he was saying. He was screening for possible spousal abuse. A woman shows up dead with bruises and they suspect the husband. God, with that many bruises, he must have thought I was a monster.

"She was in an accident a few months ago. It was pretty bad. They fixed her up over at Saint Leo's. The records should be there. There was even a police report.

That got the doctor's attention. "The police were called?"

I shook my head. "No, no, no. She was drinking. There was a court record of all of this."

"She had a history of drinking?" he asked.

"A long history," I said, frustrated. "A long history of very heavy drinking." A silence fell over the three of us. "I assume drinking was involved in her death?" No one had said it, but it seemed a safe assumption.

"You could smell it," the doctor confirmed, "but we are running tests on her blood, of course." He had obviously said more than he intended, and he stood and turned.

My eyes fell on the other man, the man in the suit, the man who said nothing. Probably a plain clothes detective. But no, he introduced himself as a hospital chaplain named Woody McKay. "Are you Catholic, Mr. Norton?" He asked me.

I shook my head. We were nothing, really. I always considered myself a Christian, and whenever I did go to church I did so as a Presbyterian. "No, I'm Protestant," I said.

"I am the Protestant on staff here at Holy Cross. Is thee anything I can do for you, Mr. Norton?"

We chatted for a few minutes. McKay was an earnest and kind man. He seemed suited very well for his chosen profession. The chaplain gave me some words of encouragement and even helped me put things in a different perspective. I asked him if I was allowed to see Gwen. McKay cleared my request with the authorities and then joined me for the grisly task.

Together, Natalie and I walked to the hole in the ground. Together, we threw soil on the coffin. Together, we walked away from the grave slowly. It was so tough on her, but she seemed so strong. I know it was early, but how she held it together I will never know. She did not get such strength from me. And as harsh as it was to think, she did not get such strength from Gwen. My wife had drunk herself to death. "Blood alcohol poisoning" was the official word from the hospital. "Blood poisoning" was the official word within the family. There was no need for Natalie to ever find out that her mother committed suicide by bottle.

The firm was very understanding, giving me the rest of the week off. My job situation was unusual, in that all of my work was on a single client. This enabled me to catch up on Canterbury by working long hours for the first few weeks after Gwen's death. I brought work home in the evening, which I had never done before. But Natalie had to come first. Above all, I had to be. We were all each other had.

Canterbury had sent a wreath to the funeral home and a very sweet card to the office. I looked for Annie's name among the signatures, but it just was not there. In the corner, I saw what appeared to be a heart. It was small, it was tucked in the corner, but it certainly looked like a heart. I wondered if that was she. It seemed comforting to think it was, so I just assumed it was so.

Monday, November 25, 2002

NaNoWriMo, Day 25
Word count, start of day -- 41,600
Halfway through lunch, I realized I had something I needed to day to Brian. "I don't want to have sex with you," I told him.

I saw him nearly choke on a cashew. I think I took him by complete surprise. "I mean I do want to, of course, I just want to, I don't know, just not today, if that's what you were thinking."

Brian nodded. "I didn't think you were the kind of girl who would--"

"I'm not," I said with passion. I just wish he could know what I was feeling. Trying to find words that make sense was becoming too difficult. I held up my right hand to stop us both from saying anything else stupid. Me, mostly. "I just wanted you to know I'm not ready for sex."

"I don't think we are ready," he said, moving his hand back and forth between the two of us. He lowered his eyes and added, "I haven't moved out yet or anything, like you."

He was right and I hoped he meant what he said. "It's just that we've talked about it, and I think that's important for people to talk about, and then I ask you over to my new place and I start making out with you." I knew I was babbling, that this was just one long run-on sentence. "I just didn't want you to think that today, you know, or I just didn't want you to be disappointed when we didn't do it."

Brian looked at me, his eyes expressive, his look passionate. "I am spending the day alone with the prettiest girl I've ever known, and earlier today she pinned me down on her sofa and sucked my face off. This incredibly hot chick I know, she asks me over and makes out with me." He chuckled. "You can dump the rest of this rice and sauce on top of my head and kick me out of the door with my shirt pulled over my head and this is still the best day of my life." He turned serious again, finishing with, "I am comfortable with whatever you are comfortable with."

I looked in his eyes and my heart warmed within me. I felt my emotions rise up, I felt our connection grow stronger. Men had said nice things to me before, sure, but none like this. Brian was not trying to play me, not trying to get something off me. Unless he was just really good at it. But no, he was an accountant who had had three girlfriends in his life. Well, four if you count me. This was not the profile or stereotype of a player. I dismissed the thought as silly. "You are very kind," I said. It was all I could think of to say. "I don't know exactly where the line is, Brian, and it may be different today than some other time."

"Of course. And this may not be fair to you, but I think you have to be the one to draw the line."

I nodded. "The line is, at the most, no sex. At least, no sex today."

"I think," he said slowly, seriously, "if it ever gets to that point, we should make a deal. We won't have sex until after we've talked about having sex, and agree it's the right thing."

I smiled, almost chuckled. What an accountant thing to say. "That's not very spontaneous," I said, "but it's a pretty good plan, I think."

"Right now, spontaneous may not be a good thing."

I agreed, and we finished off our lunches.

We unloaded a few boxes in the kitchen, then went into my bedroom. I put things away in the bathroom and I gave him a suitcase of clothes to go through. A very specific suitcase. The lingerie suitcase. "These go in the top drawer," I told him, heading out of the room. "Just put them in there." I waited in the hallway, listening. I heard the latches pop up, then a little chuckle. I poked my head in, and he was examining a thong like he had never seen one before. Maybe he had never seen a red silk one before. "You like?" I asked.

He just shook his head and smiled. Then in one move he fired them at me like a sexy little rubber band. I caught them and walked back in, spinning them on a finger. I tossed them in the drawer and offered to take care of the rest.

Brian fought back. "No, I don't mind going through the whole batch."

"Nope," I said. "I was just kidding. You'll see them when I want you to."

"How can I argue with that?" He sat on the edge of the bed while I finished this little job. Underwear was important, it had to put away carefully. I didn't have much underwear, so it did not take too long.

"Ready for a video?"

He nodded and we settled in on top of the bed to watch the flick. He held me most of the time, rubbing my arm, or my face, or brushing my hair. I snuggled in and held his hand for a while, then stroked his legs. It was very nice. He was a very good date. The movie ended and I sat up in the bed. "Enjoy it?"

"Great," he said.

"One of my all-time faves. You can pick the next one, okay?" I couldn't believe I said it, but I did. And he readily agreed. I lowered my face in to kiss him, kiss him hard, open mouth. I loved the way he tasted. I ran my fingers over his chest and belly, then stopped. I moved my mouth down his neck, lingering and thinking. Should I or shouldn't I? It would not be crossing the line, would it? "I don't want to have sex, not today," I whispered to him. But before he had to chance to comment I added, "but I'm going to give you a very nice present." I moved my hands down and unbuckled his belt. I felt him respond as I unzipped her jeans. I pushed myself up, hands near his package. I tried to look and sound as sexy as I could.

"Hope you like it."

The blood had just started to get back to my brain as I put the car in gear and headed out of the parking lot. In my fuzzines, I had the odd thought that Annie must have voted for President Clinton. We had never talked about politics before, but she and the former president had one thing in common I knew of: they shared the same definition of sex. We didn't have it, according to either one of them.

I spent the drive home trying to relive every moment of the day. It was vaporous like a dream that disappears all the more swiftly the harder one tries to recall it. I replayed it over and over again, trying to seer cartain images in my mind. Lying next to Annie on her bed watching the movie, looking up into her round eyes as she pinned me to the sofa, the look in her eyes when she made her final move.

I was not exaggerating. It was the best day of my life. Then after I say that, it got even better. What were the odds of that happening?

I tried to analyze what I had done. I had obviously done something right, because I surely wanted to do it again. But I was lost, this was all Annie's doing, all Annie's timing, all Annie's plans. The thought struck me that maybe she would shut this down as quickly as she had turned it up. The testosterone-driven male ego part of me did not care, as long as I was getting some action from a hot redhead. But the relationship-driven part of me wanted to keep this going. I really cared about her, it was way more than a crush. This was beyond dimple caring. I was really starting to fall for her. I revelled in this realization until I remembered that I was already in a relationship. I was married. At least Annie was separated. I pondered this difference in our statuses. I was at a crossroads, I decided. A decision point of some kind.

I got home and found chicken buring in the oven, Natalie watching cartoons on the floor of the rec room, and Gwen passed out behind her on the couch. "Asleep," I told Natalie, as we tossed a blanket on her and padded quietly up the stairs. I sat Nat up in Gwen's and my bedrom, scraped off the blackened part of the dinner and served it to her with the pace of microwaved french fries.

Gwen stumbled up the stairs an hour later and went straight into the bathroom. She started up the shower, but I could hear her retching. I turned up the volume on the "PowerPuff Girls." Natalie did not seem to notice.

Gwen was out fifteen minutes later and she looked a little batter. I greeted her with black coffee and burnt chicken. She did not acknowledge me, the burnt food, or her condition.

When I was sure Natalie was deeply asleep, I asked Gwen to meet me downstairs in the rec room. Her eyes were still quite bloodshot, but she seemed to be coherent. My plan was to ease into this slowly. There was plenty of time to get out of this with a minimum of mess. I saw today was the first day of the end of my marriage.

"Gwen," I said, "I think we are having problems, serious problems at that."

She stared at me, comprehending, but remained silent.

"When we first met, you were happy, I was happy, you did not drink much--"

"Oh, that's it," she exclaimed more than a little too loud. "I'm not the perfect little wife you wanted. Well boo hoo! "What are you going to do, leave me? You don't have the balls to walk out on me and you love your little girl too much. So you're stuck here, buck."

"Look, Gwen, you do not know what you are saying. I fear for your safety, and I fear for Natalie."

"Fear what? What am I going to do to hurt her? I would never hurt her."

"You are still hurt yourself from your accident. What if Nat had been with you?"

"I don't drink around her, you know that. That would never happen."

I was growing exasperated. "Today you were drinking with her! You were passed out and the oven was on.This could have been serious." I calmed myself down and spoke softly. "You need help." This was not going at all as I had planned, but I was right about this. She needed help.

"Like what? Like AA?" she scoffed. "Like some rehab program? And why? Because I need to get wasted just to make it through my day. You don't live my life! You don't know what it's like." She trailed off into sobs. I felt sorry for her. I couldn't believe that these were original thoughts she was coming up with. Some of this must have been long simmering, deep inside her. It was heartbreaking to watch all of this anger that had been piled up inside her come flowing out like some extinct volcano erupting without warning. And it hurt to be on the receiving end of it.

I was overwhelmed with guilt and sorrow. Clearly, I had failed. I had failed to keep her happy enough to avoid getting drunk. She had a need, she obviously had a deep need. And I had obviously failed to fill it.

Sunday, November 24, 2002

NaNoWriMo, Day 24
Word count, start of day -- 40,400
I made an excuse for Gwen that would account for an indeterminate absence on a Sunday morning. It was tax season, so it seemed reasonable for me to be gone most of the day. Plus, the phone was set up to give the "office is closed" message, and you had to dial a specific extension to get a phone to ring. And I had recently learned how to retrieve voice messages on my extension from any phone. So I was set, and with an odd mixture of confidence and extreme nervousness, I headed on over to the Garden Arms Apartment complex on Gateway Drive.

Annie answered the door clad in a pair of faded blue jeans and a Kansas City Royals baseball jersey. Her hair was pulled back into a powder blue scrunchie that matched the blue of the script on the jersey. Her hair was at least three inches longer than when I had first met her maybe four or five inches longer. It had a slight curl to it, not like a perm or anything. It was more like a, uh, what did they call it? A wave? A body wave, that was it. It had a nice normal looking body wave to it and was a less bold red. More of a brownish-tinged red or something. Hell, what did I know? She was a knockout and I was standing outside her door. What else mattered?

"Come on in," she said with a smile. She swept her arms around the small entrance way. "Welcome to my new home," she said. It sounded a little sarcastic, a little bitter. She closed the door and kissed me, pulling me into her.

I wedged myself up against her at the foyer wall and returned the kiss. I pulled back from her and said with a laugh, "Nice welcome, that. Thank you."

Annie smiled her face-lighting smile and said, "I am so glad you could make it."

"It does not look like you have too many boxes here," I said, looking past her into the rest of the apartment. As a matter of fact, the big open room was almost empty. The kitchen, off to the left as I entered, had only a handful of boxes stacked in it.

"You should see my bedroom," she said, then quickly seemed to correct herself. "The bedrooms, mine and Erin's. That's where the boxes are."

"It's a two-bedroom?" I asked. She nodded, then gave me the grand tour. Hallway, kitchen, empty big living room. Off to the right of the living room was a hallway that had bedrooms at either end, separated by a full bath. I would guess the place was ten years old. It was still holding together, just showing a few signs of aging here and there. Worn paint, a chipped corner, little things like that.

We ended in Annie's bedroom. I wondered briefly if this was a message of some sort. I was here to help her unpack. I did not think was euphemism, as if "unpacking boxes" was what the kids were calling it nowadays. "What do you think?" she asked vaguely.

I interpreted this as broadly as possible, and I said the apartment was nice.

She nodded. "It's not like my house was, but I am the one who moved out." I moved right in to her and hugged her. She said, "I thought we could start in Erin's room and then see far we go. I didn't know how long you could stay or how long this would take, so I also went ahead and rented a movie." She shrugged. "You know, if we had time, I thought it would be nice. And I can order out for lunch." She looked at me before going on, almost apologetically. "I don't have much in the fridge. I figured Erin and I would go out to the grocery store tonight to stock up the kitchen."

"Anything you want to do is fine. I'm here to help." I couldn't believe she was worried about being a good hostess. I nodded. "A movie would be great. What do you have?"

Annie moved into me again and kissed me. "You are a good friend, Brian." Then she stepped back and spoke. "I remember twenty questions, too. You said you had never seen 'Saint Elmo's Fire, right?" This was true enough. "I got it."

"Sounds great. Incentive to move fast."

We made Erin's bed in cartoon character sheets and a plush purple comforter. She had slept with her mom the night before, but Annie wanted her daughter's bedroom ready for her the next night she was over. "I have to make this feel a little like home for her, as much as I can." She went on to explain that she and Dennis divided much of Erin's furniture, clothing, and toys between the two apartments. Annie's version of kindness of Dennis was a complete fifty-fifty split of the housing for Erin, at least during the time that they were still married. I hung the drapes while Annie put away Erin's clothes. We agreed on where to hang the pictures and how to position the desk lamp and the night stand. "It looks great, Brian. Thanks," she said, giving me a quick and light peck on the lips.

"You're welcome, honey," I answered, then froze. I tried to cover myself by saying, "You're welcome, Annie," and pretending that I was just repeating myself.

She eyed my suspiciously. "Honey is okay, Brian."

I nodded. God, this was confusing. We moved into the kitchen and cleared it enough to position the table under the light fixture. She found plates and silverware and even some napkins. It was just after noon by this point, and she asked where she should call to get lunch. "There is a Chinese place around the corner," she said, handing me a menu, "and of course the pizza places will all deliver here." We settled on the Chinese and she phoned in the order. "Twenty minutes," she said, brushing past me and sitting on one end of the long sofa, which was the only piece of furniture in the living room.

I joined her and put my arm around her. I pointed with the other hand at the blank wall that faced us across the room. "Nice view," I joked. She tugged at my face and pulled it towards her. She give me a hot, sexy look. "Then close your eyes, you won't have to see it," she said, kissing me. It was not long before I felt her tongue probing me, running over my mouth, sending Richter scale tremors through my body. She slowly pushed me down on the sofa and hovered over me, kissing me harder. I reached up with a hand and pulled out the hair band, letting her red locks fall around her and over her soft face. I ran my fingers rhythmically through her hair. She lifted up and I opened my eyes. "Can I look now?" I said and winked at her. She smiled and nodded.

"Good," I said, letting my eyes run all over her body, her face, and her hair. "I like what I see."

She smiled and fell into my embrace and I held her until the food came. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, I couldn't tell how long we were lying there waiting for chicken cashew and spring rolls.

Time was standing still for me.

Saturday, November 23, 2002

NaNoWriMo, Day 23
Word count, start of day -- 37,800
"Hey," I said into the phone. "It's Brian," I felt that I had to add.

"I know it's you," she said, as if it was an insult that I thought she would not know. I hope I had not offended her.

"I've missed you." We had only talked a few times since the bookstore. We had fallen into a rhythm, of speaking late in the day on Fridays. It was safe for both of us, because our offices cleared out early in anticipation of the approaching weekend. I checked the clock. Five minutes till five. There was barely a soul in the place. This time of year Phares and Barnes was packed on Saturday and even pretty full on Sunday, but Friday night was still a time to beat feet out of the office.

"I've missed you."

"I'll be there on Monday," I assured her. She said she was looking forward to it.

"Kathy's coming?"

"Tuesday. Maybe Wednesday. They snagged her into the tax factory, they were a few bodies short."

"Lunch Monday?" This sounded like a good idea.

"Sure. It's a, umm, it's an appointment," I said. It was one of our little inside references. We weren't dating, we had appointments.

"Great," she said. We made our plans where and when to meet. "Are you planning on working late any time next week?" she asked.

"I suppose I could," I said airily. "Did you have something in mind?"

"I thought we could talk, you know. Like we talked on New Years' Eve."

It had been maybe five weeks since then, and neither of us had really mentioned the kiss. This was about as clear as either of us had been about it. I paused. I was paralyzed. Fortunately, she filled the void.

"Have you flipped through the book?" she asked. Now I absolutely froze. This was not light and flirty any more. She had asked me a frank question about sex. I did not answer. "Well, take a look. I would really like to talk to you about it."

"Okay." I had never talked much to Gwen about sex, and even less now that were having it so infrequently. She was not much older than me, but Gwen seemed like the kind of girl who never questioned anything her mom had ever told her about how a "good girl" acts. She had never heard the expression that a man wants a maid in the living room, a chef in the kitchen, and a whore in the bedroom. I had never gotten her to move past the "blushing bride" phase of her sex life. And now here was this young chick, a knockout of a young chick, who in reality I hardly knew, and she was pulling me into sex talk. It was wild. For all I knew, she was wild, too. Or maybe all of this talk was a front she was trying to put out, in which case she was doing a great job of it. I was sure convinced.

"You might want to check out number fourteen," she said coquettishly, "and number thirty-seven."

I actually wrote these down. "I will." I will.

"And let me know what you think. I think it says a lot about a person, actually. More than your silly twenty questions thing did," she said, chuckling.

"Hey," I said, faking a deep emotional hurt. "I thought it was a good way to get to know you."

"It was very cute," she admitted.

"Yes, I am, thank you," I answered.

She laughed hard. It was a great sound. Annie did not laugh often. You got the feeling you had to accomplish something to get her to laugh. She did not give them away lightly.

We met for lunch the next Monday, this time at a fast-food Mexican place. It did not take long for her to bring up "the book" again. "Did you check out fourteen and thirty-seven?" she asked.

I nodded. I had. "You know," I said as a way of trying to keep her from being too disappointed, "I've only been with a few women, so my experiences in this area may not be as, I don't know," I trailed off, tongue-tied.

"I am not some big super experienced woman, either. I was married pretty young, too, so almost all of my experience has been with one man."

"I know. It's just that I like sex, I love sex really, but I have not necessarily-"

"Me, either," she interrupted. But I like to think about what I'd like to do if I could. Fantasies, mostly."

I sat back and considered. Maybe Dennis had the same attitude as Gwen. That would be a little strange for a guy, but maybe not a guy his age. Maybe he was old-fashioned, too. "Gwen is not really adventurous, or aggressive," I stated plainly, then lowered my eyes. It was a bit embarrassing to admit that I did not get Gwen turned on enough to go wild. "I mean, I think I'm a good lover, I'm patient, I-" I didn't know where to go with this sentence.

"Dennis would like to have sex twice a day, if he could," Annie said a little wistfully. "But it would be almost the same every time. "I tried a few things on him, let him try some things on me, but-" She shook her head, "but he did not seem to like a lot of variety. I don't know that he appreciated," she shook her head again. She was having the same problems I was expressing these same problems. "She looked very downhearted at these admissions. "I don't think he appreciated what he had.

I look at her, dumbfounded. What man could look at Annie Bainbridge and not her to do a fourteen on you, or maybe even try a thirty-seven with you? I could not believe what I was hearing.

"I looked through the book," I said, not quite believing that I talking about sex with a legitimately hot chick, a real babe of a woman. It just blew me away, completely blew me away.

"Any ideas?" she said, her sexy eyes boring through me.

"I made a list of things out of the book."

"You and your lists," she said, shaking her head.

"Accountant," I said apologizing. What can I say?"

"Okay," she relented, "What's this list of yours?"

I withdrew a piece of paper from my shirt pocket. "I made a list of things I've done, things I've thought, things I wouldn't mind trying, you know, that sort that of thing."

She snatched it out of my hands, nearly ripping it in two. "I look forward to checking these things out in the book. Give me any hints?"

"No, no, no. You have to investigate it yourself.

"Something for me to read when I take my next bath."

I looked at her. She knew exactly the right thing to say.

We got back to the Center, and I walked nonchalantly back to the conference room. I spent the day half doing my work and half thinking about my, my, my what? What was Annie? She wasn't my lover, despite all of the talk we've been doing. I settled in my mind on girlfriend.

So I spent the day thinking about my girlfriend, until it was time to go home. Time to go home to my wife and daughter.

It was hard to concentrate. I could not stop thinking about Brian. He had sent Kathy down to the office to find vouchers while he spent his time either with Carrie talking about future corporate plans or over in the conference room working away. Probably a good idea. There was no good reason to create any suspicion towards us at this point. I understood this had to be that way, but it didn't mean I liked it.

Brian wandered into my office close to five.

"Kathy's called it a day," he said.

"I'll come over when it's a little quieter here?" I offered.

"Sounds great."

It was about forty-five minutes later when I joined him. He looked up from his work and pushed himself up to approach me. I moved my face up to . . . he hugged me. Not what I was hoping for, but it felt so good. He wrapped me up tight and I felt myself fall into him. "I've missed you," I whispered. I felt him kiss me again on the top of my forehead. It was an unusual gesture, but it comforted me. With all that was swirling on inside me and around me at home, it felt good to be at peace. At peace in loving arms.

"I've missed you, too," he said, standing back. Brian's hands caressed my face and he swept the hair back from my ears. He leaned in and . . . hugged me again. I chuckled. There were icebergs in Antarctica that moved faster than this guy.

We sat at the table and turned our chairs to face each other. He started to say something but I put up my hands and cut him off. "Me first." Brian nodded, and I looked him straight in the eyes. "I've found an apartment. I'm moving out." He looked sad, hurt. Sad for me, hurt for me.

"I'm sorry," he offered. I searched his face and was convinced that he really meant it.

I nodded. "I've seen a lawyer," I said, then broke into sobs. Brian pulled me in to those comforting arms and held me close again. I felt his heart beating against me. Its rhythm calmed me. "I can't file any divorce papers until we've been separated for a year. It broke my heart. "I have to move out, then wait another year," I said between sobs. I gulped down some air, then collected myself. I felt my makeup start to run. Damn, I probably looked like an abstract clown in some modern art exhibit.

"You're ready to move that fast," he said plainly. I nodded. "It takes a year, even if the two of you have been living in different rooms, and," he tailed off.

"Not having sex? It's been months and months. But according to the lawyer, that's not the test. I actually have to move out to start the calendar."

"Too bad you couldn't keep the house," he said.

I agreed completely. Dennis pulled a real dumb move there, but I had to give him some credit for realizing it and trying to do right by me. "At least he didn't move out of town. He put Erin first. We have always put Erin first."

"When will this all happen?"

"I promised Dennis I would stay with him a year after I first told him I wanted a divorce. That was March. My lease starts the fifteenth."

"How did he take it?"

"We had a good conversation last night, actually. Mostly I talked and he listened. I had given this a lot of thought and told him what I had been thinking."

"What are your plans with Erin?"

"Well," I said, "we are going to talk to her the day before the movers come. Then, she and I will go out that Saturday and have some fun and eventually end up at my new place. Dennis will have her the next day and night, and we will go from there."

"Seems like you've taken him into consideration quite a bit."

"Of course," I agreed, "this is not about Dennis as a father or anything. I can't deprive him of time with his little girl. Or deprive her of Dennis. They loved each other. He made the choice to stay in town and I have to honor that."

"Good. Fathers are important."

"I intend to be far more generous than the courts require. No need for this to get ugly." He agreed with that. "And if I'm more generous, I have some room to negotiate, some area we can bargain over if things change in the future."

"As long as he takes care of the two of you, especially Erin, he should be involved."

He was absolutely right, and we moved into a conversation about single parents' finances and the tax issues of it. Then he asked about my new place, and I told a few details, including its location and phone number.

I decided it was time to see if I could throw him. "I looked at your lists." Brian started to blush. It was so cute that I could make this man blush. "We've had some different experiences."

"Really?" He clearly did not know where I was going with this. I barely knew myself.

"But we like some of the same thing."

"Oh?" This perked him up. I moved my hand over and intertwined my fingers in his.

"What's your favorite position?" I asked straight out. He grimaced a bit. Brian seemed to really be thinking about this. "Was it that hard a question?" I joked.

"I like a variety, I suppose."

I agreed. "You did check off a lot in that section of the book." He laughed. I continued, "But I don't think it's important to try all of these weird positions just to say you have you have. Or I wouldn't want to stop in the middle just to move into some other gymnastics contortion."

Brian shook his head. "It isn't like that. We never had a book and a checklist and a plan to do all sorts of things. It's more like being in the moment, moving around and finding something comfortable."

How unlike Dennis this man was. Dennis and I hardly talked about sex, either. "It's nice to be able to talk to someone about sex."

Brian agreed wholeheartedly. "It's an important part of a relationship, an important part of who I am." He looked at me and smiled. "There are so many things that you are the only person I've ever told."

That statement touched me so deeply I could not respond. I could not respond in words. Instead, I pushed my chair back and stood. I took one step forward and then stepped over Brian. I lowered myself onto him, straddling him. I held his face in my hands and kissed him. It was slow but strong. I rocked very slowly on him. We were at the office, the cleaning crew was nearby, and who knew who else was around? I had to break before we were caught. I did so and leaned into Brian's chest. He put his arms around me again and gently patted my back.

"I love it when you hold me," I said before moving back into my chair.

"Thanks for staying late tonight, Annie," he said with that sly smile of his. "I really appreciate it."

I laughed. He always had the correct, light thing to say to break whatever tension that existed at a moment. "It's probably time for us to go." I stood.

Brian nodded, but said, "I really can't stand right now." He looked down at his crotch.

I laughed and kissed him again, hard. I considering brushing my hand against his package, but changed my mind. No, not yet. Maybe someday later. I broke off the kiss, told Brian I'd see him in the morning, and left. I was a little excited myself, I could tell.

Definitely, someday later. Or maybe someday soon.

Friday, November 22, 2002

NaNoWriMo, Day 22
Word count, start of day -- 36,070

My worry was interrupted when I saw Brian enter the store. He walked in casually, then wandered aimlessly around the place. But I knew it wasn't really aimless. What I noticed right away was how he was dressed. It was the first time I had seen him out of dress clothes. That though kind of made me blush. I mean of course, that this was the first I had seen him in casual clothes. He was wearing a nice pair of blue jeans and a flannel shirt, untucked. The tee shirt he wore was a coral blue that looked pretty good with the dark blue pattern in the outer shirt. He seemed fairly well put together, in an ensemble that maybe he had thought about and not just thrown on.

He browsed the magazines before turning to fake surprise at seeing me there. After putting on a performance of being two friends casually running into each other in a bookstore, we settled into the rhythm of conversation.

I told him a little about my week, how work was going, general stuff about the office and all. That part of my world was hanging together pretty well.

"We were talking about your girlfriends last time," I said, slipping myself around a little and becoming more comfortable. I added seriously, "God, that seemed like a long time ago."

He nodded. A lot had happened since we had that lunch at the pizza shack. He said, "Sure, I can talk more about me, but in a little while maybe." I eyed him. "But first, I had some questions for you."

I sank further into the soft chair, and faced him. Might as well make myself comfortable. These questions might make me thoroughly uncomfortable. But I was ready for whatever he had to throw at me. "Ask anything you want."

He dug a hand into a back pocket of his jeans and drew out a small slip of paper. He unfolded it. Maybe it was a note card of some kind. "You remember the game twenty questions?" he asked with a sly grin.

"Sure," I said, a little hesitantly. What did he have in mind?

"I have twenty questions for you," he announced. I kept looking at him, not knowing quite what to say. "Ready for number one?"

I nodded.

"Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

I said that I did, and told him about Jake and Samuel. Jake was five years older than me, and Sam was two years younger.

"What do they do?"

"Jake is in construction, a housing contractor. and Samuel is up in New York, trying to do something in theatre. I'm not really sure what exactly he is up to."

He held up two fingers. "What is your favorite movie of all time?"

I had to think about this one. Julia Roberts was my favorite actress, but 'Erin Brockovich' is not a movie to see over and over again. "This is a tough one, Brian. I would have to go with a classic chick flick, 'Sleepless in Seattle.'" He frowned just a little, and I changed my mind. "No, wait! I'm going to go with 'Saint Elmo's Fire.'"

This time he nodded. I was going to ask him his favorite, but figured that was against the rules of his little game. "Next?" I asked.

"Have you ever boon to a foreign country?"

This was an easy one. "Mexico and the Bahamas."

"When was that?"

"Mexico was a singles cruise. I was like twenty or something."

"Sweet," he commented. He was right.

"And the Bahamas were our honeymoon."

He nodded, then moved quickly to the next question.

"Favorite restaurant in town?"

"That's an easy one," I said. I could knock this one out of the park. "Wellington's Steak House. Thick and juicy and sizzling."

Brian laughed. "Sounds good. How about this one: What is your favorite TV show? Do you have an "appointment" type of show that you never miss?"

Another easy one. "It was 'Twin Peaks,' for me. Nothing now, now that 'X-Files' is gone. Maybe it will be 'Six Feet Under.'"

"I dug 'Twin Peaks,' too. I had to watch it alone, though. Gwen was not a fan. She did not approve of it. It was a little too weird for her."

This sounded so familiar. "I watched "X-Files' by myself for the same reason."

"It's tough. Gwen and I have really different tastes. She's only a few years older than me, but it's like she's from another lifetime sometimes."

I nodded, again. "Dennis is actually from another lifetime, another generation, so I guess it's not as much of a surprise to me."

He looked at me seriously, then asked a completely silly question about how many pairs of shoes I owned. I laughed out loud and admitted I had probably twenty pairs. He seemed shocked that a woman could own that many shoes, but I know of plenty of girls who had more than I. Brian just laughed more at me and asked about whether I was born in Kansas City.

"A small town just outside. We lived in a working class part of the area." I used to say blue-collar, but working class sounded better somehow.

"Did you go to your prom?" he asked.

"Of course."

"I didn't," Brian admitted, then quickly asked what my first job was. I told him about working retail at Kohl's, a big retail chain in the Midwest. "A season in the gift wrap division has given me a reputation as a top-notch present wrapper. I do go through a lot of tape," I had to admit.

"Have you ever been to Disney World or Disney Land?"

I shook my head. "Maybe when Erin is a few years older. There are a number of things I want her to experience when she was young, things that I wasn't able to do."

He changed gears on me again. "What's your dress size?" Was he trying to throw me off with this range of questions?

"I'm usually a four, depending on the specific dress and designer."

"Six the rest of the time?"

"No, a two," I said, trying to not be insulted. "You think I look like a six?"

He gave me a look of complete innocence. "I don't know what a size six looks like. Or a four, or a two. I'm a guy."

I laughed. He did not mean anything by it, so I let it slide.

"Is that your real hair color?" he asked with a smile.

"Now your getting personal," I said with a grin. I thought about asking how we was going to discover my real hair color, but that might be too provocative. "It's lightened a little bit, but I am a blonde."

He grinned. I don't know at what. Probably a bunch of old blonde jokes and that Julie Brown song from that Geena Davis alien comedy movie. He asked if I had ever gotten a speeding ticket and I told him no.

"But you've been pulled over," he said matter-of-factly.

"Three or four times," I said. It was probably closer to ten.

"No tickets?"

I shook my head no.

"Blonde," was all he said, shaking his head. I thought about fighting back, but deep down I know he was probably right.

I then told him that history was my best subject in high school, that George Brett was my favorite Kansas City Royal, and that fruit pies were my favorite junk food. "Aren't we done yet?" I asked. It had been fun, but was getting tedious, too.

"Just a few more," he assured. "We're in a bookstore, so let me ask you the last book you read."

I had to think. "I don't read a lot of books, or a lot of fictional novel books. I read a lot of magazines and," I stopped and smiled. I just remembered the last book I read.

"What?" he prompted, a little suspicious.

I leaned into him. "It was a sex book."

"Really?" He seemed a little shocked, but maybe a little interested, too.

"I bought it here," I gestured behind us. "It's something like, 'How To Make Love To Anyone,' or something like that."


The truth was, I had not had much opportunity to practice. I got it right when things were starting to slide with Dennis. "I thought that it would help us maybe," I explained, "but he was not real hip to change what he thought was working."

"But it wasn't working?" Brian asked.

"The whole relationship wasn't working well, by then. I just wanted to spice things up a little."

"Didn't get the chance?"

"No." Then I added, "Not yet."

"Not yet," he repeated, and then looked away. I wanted to sort of flirt with him, let him know some of my thoughts. That was the point of all of this, wasn't it? He seemed a very passive person, which in this sort of thing pretty much made sense. He was being a gentleman, and so I needed to be a little less of a lady. I could not count on him to make any moves on his own.

"You ought to flip through that book some time," I prompted. "It might give you some ideas."

He almost blushed, but then flashed a devilish grin at me. "Maybe I ought to do that."

We spent a few more minutes finishing up his list of twenty questions, and I managed to flirt a little more with him. This was so much fun, it was so unreal, it was so different than anything I'd ever done before. But it was fun. Spending time with Brian was fun, just plain fun.

I left the bookstore in time to get home for lunch with Erin. I wanted to put her to down for a nap, so I could do a little re-reading of that book I'd bought here. Maybe my love life, and maybe even my sex life, weren't quite over after all.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

NaNoWriMo, Day 21
Word count, start of day -- 35,000
I could not believe I was telling Annie about things between Gwen and me. It just all came rushing out like some emotional dam deep down in me had broken. I had never crystallized these feelings into thoughts before, and it scared me a bit to be doing it now, in this setting, with this woman. I found that maybe I was exaggerating my problems with Gwen, or maybe I was just feeling that distance that had grown between us for the first time. Or at least the first time without my internal editor getting in the way.

She was equally open with me. It was thrilling to have such an open conversation, to just be able to talk honestly, damn the reaction. I trusted her and she seemed to trust me, too. Unfortunately, the time slipped by too swiftly to go much further. It was eleven in the evening. We had agreed that was the appropriate time to leave, and I wanted to stick to that. I stood up and helped Annie to her feet. That contact was electric, sending currents of high-voltage sparks through my system. I veritably tingled with delight. She was a few inches taller than Gwen, maybe by three of four inches. It made for different angles looking down at her. You took weird things like that for granted. Annie reached up and patted my neck. What a sweet gentle move that was. What a sweet gentle woman Annie was.

"Happy New Year," she said with an angelic smile.

"Not here," I said, "but it is in England and now it is somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe it's New Year in Greenland." I moved away. I was not going to be the one making any moves.

I felt Annie increase the pressure and pull me back to her. Instinctively, I closed my eyes and felt my head move up in ecstasy. I had missed the joys of new love. It had been a long time, and these episodes were quite rare. Three. Well now, maybe four.

She pulled my face down and I felt her breasts push into my breastbone, then push up into me. She was standing on her toes, I supposed. I felt her lips touch mine and the sensation was explosive. I had not had this giddy a feeling in years, and had expected never to again. I received the kiss and returned it softly, gently. Do not force. I could not force.

Annie pulled back and gave me a look that turned my insides upside down. She was demure, sexy, cute, and aggressive. All at the same time. "Happy New Year," she said again, then sashayed down the hall. I stared at her as she retreated, not wanting to miss a second of her frame as it moved away from me.

"I slumped into the chair and put my head in my hands. Was this cheating? Or, was this cheating yet? Maybe that was the better question. Is it a matter of degree, a matter of intent, or a matter of actions? I was too tired to think straight, too shocked to think clearly.

I roused myself enough to get home, change clothes and crash on the sofa. Gwen's folks were still in the spare bedroom.

I explained this the next morning by claiming I did not want to awaken Gwen and that she needed to rest all she could before her work started again. Gwen claimed that she accepted this, her parents seemed to appreciate it, and even Natalie was impressed by my consideration of her mother's health. It made me out to be a much better guy that I really was, by far.

After the in-laws left, I slept a few nights in the guest room. Eventually, I moved back into our bedroom, into our bed. But I tried to not look at Gwen, I had no desire to do so. I did not touch her, and did not kiss her.

A week later, Annie called my office and left a phone message for me. I called her the next day from the corporate headquarters of a furniture store, an audit client that Phares and Barnes had worked on for more than thirty years.

"Hey," she said, when I identified myself.

"I should have called sooner-" I started.

She cut me off. "No, it's okay. I understand."

"It is just that, "I stammered, "I don't know, it is just that," I trailed off. I had absolutely no idea what to say to her now. There was no rule book for handling a situation like this.

"I know. It's the same for me," She said. She seemed calm and level-headed. I did not know what to expect. The options could range from totally ignoring everything that has happened so far, extreme sorrow, terrible anger, and many more. But Annie seemed to be okay. I was relieved by this. "I would like to see you," she said.

"Me, too." I had thought about this, trying to come up some kind of location that we could meet at that would be public, but give us a chance to talk. "I had a few ideas. I thought maybe we could meet somewhere at the mall or something."

She hesitated. Was she thinking about it? "Sounds good." Sounded good. I had the sense that she was a woman not unfamiliar with the local mall.

"Food court? Or the bookstore? Maybe those benches over by the fountains?" These were some of the places I had scouted out as potential rendezvous sites.

She thoughts about, we discussed the pros and cons of each, and settled on the bookstore. It was a big chain which had a variety of seating options. We would meet there on purpose by accident, next Saturday. "That's a long time to wait," I told her. I hope I was not coming off as woefully desperate.

She laughed and agreed with me, but the time and day were set. Last time we had a long talk, I told her a lot about me, and maybe this time Annie would be the one to open up a bit.

It had been over two weeks. This was not the way is worked in the movies. You give a guy a first kiss, and then you don't see him again for nearly three weeks? And I had only spoken to Brian once in that time. It was odd, just plain odd.

I settled in one of the big chairs in the magazine section, flipping through a few fashion magazines. If I could only like one of these cover models, my life would be so much better. I just knew that this was true. I tried to eat right, I worked out, but I did not know what else I could do.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

NaNoWriMo, Day 20
Word count, start of day -- 32,800

"Do you work with Brian much?" I asked. Kathy was diligently checking items off her list. She had not found a mistake yet. But I thought I may as well take this chance to learn a little about Brian.

"What?" she seemed surprised.

I repeated the question for her.

"A couple of times," she answered, still focused on her work. She seemed willing and able to chat and count at the same time. "We did a car dealership earlier in the year, and we worked together at a college over the summer."

"He seems pretty nice. Is he easy to work with?"

"He's great. I've seen him deal with clients in his easy-going way, and he is the same way in the office."

"What you see is what you get?" I prompted.

"Seems that way."

I tried to make this conversation seem normal and not too obvious. I moved on to talking a bout her and her career. I commented on her dress, because it looked real good. It was a nice party dress, short, backless, and made of a real pretty silk blend. She gushed about her boyfriend and their plans for the evening.

After what I thought was an appropriate amount of time, I excused myself and headed back to find Brian.

Brian was also working hard. He had an intensity about his job, a seriousness, a focus that was very attractive. It was an odd balance, because he was casual and sort of laid-back in his general attitude. But at the same time, he had this intense and serious streak when he was doing something important. I saw this when we were talking about serious stuff. But even when he was serious, he had this undercurrent of lightness and humor. It was an unusual combination. It was an attractive combination.

"Any problems yet?" I asked upon entering the room.

He shook his head. "Not a one. They must hire excellent people around this place," he said with a shy smile.

I smiled back at the compliment. "Well, I did not actually count in this room, so I can't take all the credit."

He chuckled, then turned serious. "Has Kathy found any problems?"

"Not that she told me about."

"What did you to talk about?"

I sensed his nervousness and decided to jump into it. "You, mostly," I exaggerated.

"Only good stuff, right?" he actually seemed a little nervous about this. I wondered for a second if there was something really there.

"Only good stuff," I answered lightly. It was true. "She seems nice, Kathy does. She'll be back out to the audit in February?"

"I'm planning on it, as long as we stick to our calendar. If she is working on something the week before and it goes over schedule, then maybe I'll have to bring someone else out. But I like Kathy. She's good."

"Attractive," I commented.

"She's all right," he answered. He said this while keeping his attention securely on the items he was counting.

"I'm not a jealous type, if that's what you think."

He looked up, confused. "What?"

"I won't be jealous if you say she's pretty." It was true. I admired good-looking people of all types, ages, and sexes.

Brian halfway shrugged. "She's okay," he said, pausing for a second. "She has nice hair."

"And a beautiful dress tonight."

He put his clipboard down. Maybe I was frustrating him with these questions. I was not trying to lead him into saying anything particular, but maybe he felt trapped. "I don't particularly like that dress," he said plainly, "at least not on her."

"Really?" This was interesting. "What do you mean?"

He sighed, then smiled. "She's not walking down the hall now, is she?"

I checked. She was not coming.

Brian looked at me. "There are very few outfits that look good on any woman, and very few women that look good in any outfit. For most clothes and most ladies, let's just say that not everything is meant to be worn by everyone."

I nodded, but stayed quiet. I didn't want to cut him off, if he had more to add. This was good insight. Most men ran from conversations about women's fashion.

He continued. "It's like a comedian I heard once. His punch line was that it should be against the law to make thongs bigger than a size seven."

I laughed out loud at this remark. My thongs were a size five, so I was safe.

"And belly shirts," he added, "and low-rider jeans. And navel piercings. The point of all of these things is to draw attention to the belly, and I'm sorry but some women who wear these things should not be drawing attention to that part of their body."

"It makes them feel pretty," I said, defending my sisters.

Brian shook his head. "But it does not make them look pretty. It's like this. An average woman is walking down the street with her pretty friend. The pretty friend is in a belly shirt and she draws a lot of male attention. The average woman figures it's because of the shirt, and thinks all she needs is one and now she'll get the attention.

He stopped, assuming I got the point of this little story. "It was not the shirt that got the attention, it was the girl."

"Of course." He was back at his job, but said, "Not that it's a bad thing, all in all. It's worth seeing four women wearing clothes like that who shouldn't to see one that's wearing those clothes who should. It's all a balance. See, women think that an attractive woman in an attractive outfit always looks attractive, but it's like pickles and ice cream. Separately, they're fine. But together, they're not." I eyed him suspiciously. "If a woman tries to dress above herself, it can really backfire."

I frowned. "This is crazy. Do all men think like this?"

"I'm exaggerating a little," he admitted, "and I'm not as bad as most guys, but it is generally the way we see things."

Maybe it was a generational gap. Dennis was about ten years older than Brian, and I was certain he did not think like this. At least he had told me before that he did. Brian looked pat me up the hallway and cocked his head. I looked. "She's not coming yet."

"Okay, take Kathy. She's young, she looks fine, she's probably a seven and in the right clothes might be an eight, okay." I nodded, wondering where this was going. "But you have to be a nine to wear that dress she has on. So when a seven puts on a nine dress, she ends up a six."

"I never got past calculus, Brian, so that math part confused me a little," I joked.

He tapped his temple with a forefinger. "It's man calculus, Annie. Man calculus."

He finished his counts, and then we headed towards Kathy, who met us in the hallway. "Good timing," she joked. We all tromped off towards the food service area.

They knocked out the boxed goods and headed towards the refrigerated areas. "You did so well with the frozen foods last year, Kathy," Brian started, "It just seems a natural that you would--"

"Do you think I'm dressed for it?" She asked.

"She has a point, Brian. Just look at those legs."

Kathy hiked up her skirt a few more inches and slapped her hoseless legs, just above the knee.

"I'm not supposed to treat workers different, that would be sex discrimination," he tried, but I think he knew he was losing the battle.

"I probably shouldn't get too cold in this outfit, anyway," she said, looking down. Was she talking about her nipples? She wasn't wearing a bra, so again she had a good point. Brian appeared to not get it. His innocence was kind of cute. He had plenty of theories about women's clothes, but had not a full consideration of the woman's body. She was giving him a helpless little girl look. God, she was almost batting her eyes at him.

Brian cracked. "Okay, I'll do it this year." He wagged a finger at Kathy like a father and told her in a silly voice, "Now, young lady, you better come dressed more appropriately next year."

She glanced my way. "It's New Years' Eve, Brian. I am dressed appropriately." She checked her watched and announced, "And I'm about to be late."

He threw up his arms in a mimic of disgust. "Go, go, go. I'll handle it from here."

Kathy was out of there in a flash. For a man who did not think she looked so good in that dress, Brian spent a few extra seconds lingering his eyes on her as she strode away. I decided to not comment. "Want some coffee or hot chocolate? For when you get out of the deep freeze."

"You serious?" I told him I was. "Hot chocolate would be great."

He pulled on his suit and gloves and did his work. It took him two trips into the cold to finish up. I had his cup of Swiss Miss ready when he got out and shed the heavy clothes.

"How long are you going to stay?" I asked.

He clearly did not have an answer, so I gave him one. "I would like to get home before the drunks hit the road at twelve, so I thought if we could talk for a bit it would be nice. Do you have to be at home at any time?" In other words, did your wife give you a curfew?

"No. You?"

I shook my head. Dennis and I would blow our noisemakers with Erin whenever she woke up.

The two of us headed up the hallway and found a few nice chairs to sit in. These were spread throughout the facility for residents who could not make it from one place to another in a single trip. Another sign of the realities of growing old. "How are things at home?" I asked.

"Okay," he answered. "Except that Gwen may lose her license."

"From the accident?"

"She tested out at point-one-one."

The legal limit in the state was oh-nine, maybe even oh-eight. "Restricted privileges?"

"If the judge is in a good mood." He shook his head. This obviously upset him. "She won't drink with her parents around, but they go back next week some time."

"And you think she'll start again."

"God, I hope not. This time she really paid. Maybe it'll wake her up, but I don't hold out a lot of hope." He shook his head again. "You guys?"

I told him about selling and moving out of the house and finding a decent apartment, and that I was sleeping on a futon in the living room. "It was kind of tough on Dennis, because we put the futon out there, and it was pretty obvious it's where I was sleeping. So all these big burly manly movers pretty much knew that he wasn't getting any."

Brian laughed, then quickly turned serious. "That's rough."

"But Erin has not commented yet, so we have not had to have that conversation yet."

"I've played that scenario in my mind myself," he said, "And I can't figure out how to do it. I just don't know how Nat would react."

"Is it that serious between you two?" I tried not too sound hopeful, because that was just too cold.

"The drinking is a big problem, but maybe it's a sign that she's not happy at all. We argue, she drinks. We've become really different people."

"How long have you two been married?"

"Nine years. The first few were good."

That beat me and Dennis. Our first few weeks were good, then it started slipping away. "I would like to see you somehow, somewhere, some way. I don't know how or anything."

Brian nodded. "I know, I do, too, but I don't know how to work it. I don't know what, I don't know anything." He looked truly confused. I had thought this out more than he had. Maybe my marriage had crumbled sooner than his? Who knew?

My eyes caught the clock on the far wall. I gestured to it. Eleven. "Time to go."

He stood and then pulled me up, almost but not quite into a hug. We were separated by maybe an inch. My heart was pounding. I wanted him to kiss me, but I doubted that we would. "Well, it's a new year somewhere in the Atlantic," he said with a chuckle, then turned away ever so slightly.

I tugged his arm just a bit a he stilled. "Happy New Year," I said softly, and put my left hand on the back of his neck. I played with his hair for a second and he smiled. In one move, I stood up on my toes and pulled his head down to me. I kissed him firmly on the mouth, confidently. It lasted maybe two seconds, maybe three. I wasn't counting. I opened my eyes and found his wide. I brushed his cheek with my hand. "Happy New Year," I repeated, then turned and left.