"What are you thinking?" he asks me suddenly.
I decide to be honest. "I'm wondering why we've changed the subject."
He chuckles before responding. "I want to be sure when you're with me, that you're WITH me, if you know what I mean!" A pause, then he adds, "Are you?"
"I never left, love!" I exclaim. My throat needs clearing again.
"If you only knew the things I think about you," he said suddenly, his voice as hoarse as mine. "I've only ever been this...caught up," he inhales deeply, "one other time in my life. I married her." He chuckles quietly. "It seems you have a greater power over me than I've been willing to admit. Until now."
I swallow convulsively. I haven't felt this excited, this much on the brink of discovery, since I was nineteen and about to lose my virginity. I swallow again, and he says,
"I'm sorry if this isn't what you want to hear, Kitty. I won't say any more." He stops as abruptly as he started.
"Lee, I'm not upset. I'm...thrilled, actually. But I'm scared too. We're married to other people, people to whom we owe loyalty, and for whom we feel affection. Most of the time." I listen as he chuckles. "I want ...well, you know," I say, and clear my throat of the emotion filling it. "But I can't have it, can I?" I struggle to keep the sob from my voice.
"We cannot choose whom we love, Kitty," he whispers. "We can choose what we do about it." He pauses, then sighs. "What will we do about it, hon? I'll do whatever you ask me to do."
"I...I want to know you, Lee," I say, hesitantly. "I want all that I think we can have together, physical and emotional." I stop, then sigh and continue. "I guess I'll have to settle for this."
"This?" His question is sharp.
"Talking on the phone. Hearing your voice. Knowing you're as ...involved as I am. As wired. As needy." I laugh, a short, harsh sound. "It's good for my ego, at least."
"How so?" he wonders.
"At my age? Any man who wants me the way you seem to, must either be drunk, blind, or in love!" I pause, suddenly afraid. "Which is it, Lee? Which are you? Or is it all an act?"
He sighs, a heavy sound. "Trust is hard, isn't it, hon, when we've never seen each other, when we don't really know all that we need to know about each other to make it possible?" I wait for him to answer my question.
"Kitty, you are a special lady, and I do enjoy being with you like this. You do touch my heart, hon!" His admission is spoken slowly, almost reluctantly, and I know it is hard for him. As much as he can be, he is a man of honor, who struggles, as I do, to keep faith with his real life. But, like me, he wants to have this small place to be free to enjoy the whole man, the one who can feel strong emotions for more than one woman.
"Will you call me again, Lee?" I ask.
"I can't, hon!" he answers immediately.
I sigh. "I understand. Thank..."
He interrupts me. "No. You don't!" He chuckles. "I can't because I don't have it anymore. I tore up the paper with the number on it., and I've already deleted our conversation from the computer. And I'm calling you from the call box on the corner of my street. I have to protect you, hon." A pause. "And me." I cannot stop the tears this time, and he hears me sniffle, though I try to keep it quiet. "When the time is right, we will speak again. I promise. And we will know when that is," he ends, as though he has heard my unspoken question. His tone becomes brisk. "Now dry your tears, and get some rest. D'you hear?"
"Yes, sir," I say, giggling and sniffling simultaneously.
"Hear and obey?" He is chuckling again.
"Yes sir!" I reply smartly, saluting, even though I know he can't see me. "I..." I stop myself in the nick of time, and hope he hasn't heard me.
"You...what, Kitty?" He has clearly heard me.
"Kitty, tell me!"
"No, it's okay. Just a weak moment." I refuse to speak the words that would make it impossible to let this conversation be the best thing we can have between us. "It's okay, Lee. I can't do that to our friendship. I won't. Forget you heard that slip."
He sighs. "I understand. Well, I think my time is up. We'll talk again, soon, hon. Get some rest."
"Bye, Lee! Thanks for calling!"
There is a click. The sound has a finality that echoes in my ears, in my heart. I wish I could hold on to the moment, but it is gone, like a whisper in the wind. I replace the receiver in its cradle, and resume my position in the sofa. I wonder what he's doing now, as I re-read the conversation we have had today. I know he deletes all his conversations with me, and I know I need to do that with this one, too. But I cannot click on the X just yet. Instead, I close my eyes, and daydream.
CODA: FAST FORWARD
I look around me in the restaurant. The place is comfortably crowded, and I settle down to enjoy the view of the ocean that I can see through the window. The waves crash on the shore outside, and the seagulls wheel and cry as they dive into the surf. I sip the glass of wine I have ordered, and wait for the salad to arrive. This has been a short but exciting break for me from the responsibilities of home and work. This conference, where I have been participating in seminars and workshops, and where I will deliver a paper in the morning, is the first one I've been to in ten years. I smile slowly, enjoying the sense of freedom I have, and wishing that I could stay longer. But tomorrow will be my last full day here, and I leave the day after. At least I still have a long train ride to look forward to before I am back in the saddle.
A stirring next to my ear makes me turn my head. A man is standing by my table. Not my waiter. I look up inquiringly, and wonder why he looks so familiar. He smiles at me, and says, "Hello, Ms. Kitty!" and my heart stops for a breathless second, then gallops off like a Derby winner. I cannot find my voice, and smile weakly at him. He seems to be waiting for something, but I cannot think, and am grateful when the waiter approaches with my salad.
"Excuse me, madam, but this gentleman would like to share the table with you, if you have no objection!"
He looks inquiringly at me, and I smile and nod, still unable to speak. It is, after all, a table for four, so for me to remain sole occupant would not be good for business. Lee slides into the seat next to me, and settles himself, putting the napkin on his lap, turning to place his drink order with the waiter, reaching for the glass of water now placed there. I try to settle my nerves, and listen as he tells the waiter he will have whatever I am having for a main course, but that he would like soup instead of salad. He orders New England clam chowder and sits back to wait for the beer he has ordered to arrive.
I feel his gaze on me before he speaks. "Small world, huh, Miss Kitty?" he says. He sounds exactly as he does on the phone, with a slow southern drawl, and a faint hoarseness to his voice. "Fancy meeting you here," he continues. His face creases in a smile. "It's made my day!"
I opt for flippancy, because I am so nonplussed by his appearance, and because I am afraid of where this meeting will go.
"Glad I could be of assistance!" Then I make an effort to be somewhat more welcoming. "It's very nice to meet you, finally, Lee!" I extend my hand, and he takes it into his own warm ones. We share a hand hug, since he has taken my hand in both of his and squeezes it gently.
"It's wonderful to meet you, Miss Kitty!" His eyes convey a message I do not wish to interpret, so I look away and pull gently on my hand. He releases it, but I know he is still staring at me. It has been more than a month since the last time we talked online. We had only ever spoken to each other on the phone one other time, on my birthday. He had remembered it, and had asked me if he could call. It had been a heated, steamy conversation, and the thought of it now, with him sitting next to me, makes me go warm.
"You have no idea how often I have dreamed of meeting you," he says. "I had given up hope of it ever happening, and now my dream is sitting next to me." He touches the hoop earring closest to him, and I turn to look into his eyes. "And more beautiful than any photograph!" His voice has gone hoarse now, and as if on cue, the waiter appears with his drink. He pours the beer into the stein, and takes a deep swallow.
"Thank you, Lee," I reply, smiling faintly. "You're not bad yourself." I think about how that sounds and begin to mumble, "Not that you ever looked bad..." but he stops me with a hand on my arm.
"No apologies here, either!" he says, referring to his rule about not apologizing for being ourselves online.
He is watching me eat my salad, and I am growing more self-conscious with every bite.
"Am I making you nervous, hon?" he asks suddenly.
"Yes," I reply honestly, and breathe a sigh of relief when the waiter brings his soup. He falls to with gusto, and I hide a smile as I, in my turn, watch him.
"Hungry, are you?" I ask.
He looks up and smiles, a secret smile. "Yes," he says, nodding, and then returns his attention to his soup.
I finish my salad and the waiter arrives with our entrees. I feel myself relaxing as we eat. He doesn't talk much, but seems to sense that I am less nervous than I was when he first sat down. The silence between us is companionable, and soon we are pushing aside the plates and reaching for our drinks.
"How have you been, hon?" he asks, taking a swallow of his beer.
"Fine," I say. "Busy, but fine. You?"
"Same here. My granddaughter's been ill and in the hospital, but she's better now. We expect that she will be released tomorrow." He took another swig of beer. "Meg is fine. The nursing home she works in is closing down, but she has been offered a job in another facility closer to home. Better pay, too! She's thrilled."
"And you?" I ask, looking closely at him. He has always expressed mixed feelings about his wife's job, and now that she has a new one pending, I wonder how he feels about it.
"I'm good. Better now," he adds, sliding his gaze over my face. "Much better!"
The waiter approaches and asks if we want dessert. I decline and Lee asks for coffee. We sit and wait, and he says, "Do you really NOT want dessert, Kitty, or are you worried?"
I marvel that he is so attuned to my emotions. "Well, I have to prepare for a presentation tomorrow, and it is getting late," I say, "so I thought I'd make it an early night." I do not tell him about the slow ache that has been building in me all evening, and that has me alternately wishing he'd ask me to his place or bid me goodbye outside the restaurant.
"I don't want to be the one to keep you up, hon, but the evening is still young. A nightcap before bed?"
"Where?" I ask.
"Where are you staying?" he asks as the waiter returns with his coffee. He adds cream, no sugar, and sips while he waits for my response.
I give him the name of the hotel and his eyes widen briefly, before he lowers his eyelids and I cannot see his expression.
"Where are you staying?" I ask him, and then it occurs to me, to ask as well, "And what are you doing here?"
"Busman's holiday," he answers between sips of coffee. I notice that he doesn't tell me where he's staying. "The company has decided I need to update my skills so I'm here for mandatory training. The evenings are mine, and tomorrow morning. I'm leaving the day after. You?"
"Same here," I answer, my pulse racing as though he has touched me.
He drains his coffee cup and raises his hand for the bill. I take up my pocketbook and hunt around for my purse.
"Kitty," he says, and I look up. "I've got this!"
He pays for our meal and helps me out of my seat. Keeping his hand on my elbow, he steers me out into the warm evening air.
"Shall we go?" he asks.
I nod and he sets a brisk pace to my hotel, which is mere blocks away. As we walk into the foyer, Lee stops me with a gentle tug on my arm.
"Are we on for that nightcap?" His eyes, which are a surprisingly deep blue, hold my brown gaze steadily. I think I feel a faint trembling in his hand on my arm, but I can't be sure, and I decide it must be my imagination.
"Sure," I agree, after a brief pause. He turns me and begins to head toward the bar in the hotel, but I stop him. "Can we order room service?" I see his eyes darken, and I hasten to add, "My feet are rather sore, and I'd like to kick these shoes off!" I turn toward the bank of elevators, and he follows me. My room is on the fifth floor, and as we stop in front of my door, he asks,
"Don't you want to know where I'm staying?"
I look up at him quizzically, certain he's trying to tell me something, and it dawns on me. "Here? In this hotel?"
He nods, and taking the keycard from my suddenly nerveless fingers, opens the door and ushers me inside. He goes to the telephone and dials a number. "What would you like to drink?" he asks.
"I don't care, you choose," I answer. I kick my shoes off and stumble into the bathroom. After relieving myself, I look at my face in the mirror. I am tired, and my eyes show it. I wash my face, and in lieu of replacing the make-up, I apply moisturizing cream and lip-gloss. Then I go back into the room to find Lee standing with his back to me, staring out the glass doors, presumably at the town visible across the river.
"I used to come to this town every summer as a kid," he says, as though he knows I am approaching him. "My grandparents lived here. Some of the best times of my life. Went fishing with my grandpa, planted a kitchen garden with my grandma, went swimming with the neighbor children. Learned to sail on the ocean, and to swim in the river." He pauses, then says deliberately, "Lost my virginity here the summer before I went off to college." He turns as he says that and looks at me. "I was eighteen, and horny. Kinda like I am now!"
He reaches for me as he says that and pulls me to him, his hands on my shoulders. I know I should feel afraid, even outraged, but all I can feel is exhilarated. And now I can definitely feel the slight trembling in his fingers on my shoulders, and I know what that means. I raise my eyes to his face, and he lowers his head. Our first kiss is tender, sweet, short. He lets me go almost instantly and moves to sit in the armchair. My lips are still tingling from the feel of his mouth on mine, when room service arrives with our drinks.
I take the one he offers me, being careful not to touch him, and take a deep swallow. It is some kind of drink I'm not familiar with, and it's strong. I welcome the kick, as I begin to think about what will happen if I let it.
I take another swallow, and gasp at the sharp bite of the liquor. "What is this?" I ask, looking at him.
"Brandy," he says, and comes back to face me. "Kitty, I need you!" His voice is also trembling. "I've spent more than a year fantasizing about you, and more than six months fighting my feelings for you. Then you show up in the restaurant where I have been eating dinner for the last two evenings, and you're staying in the same hotel that I am, one floor down. Don't tell me that is coincidence."
He relieves me of my drink, and pulls me toward him. "Do you know how hard it's been for me to keep my hands to myself this evening? Or how I've ached to do this?" He stares at my mouth for a long moment, before bending his head and touching it with his, again. "You smell good," he sighs into my ear, kissing the lobe with tender, butterfly kisses.
I can feel him everywhere now, from shoulders to knees, and he is clearly ready for action. "Lee," I whisper. "Please..." I don't know quite what I want from him, and he must sense my confusion.
"D'you want me to stop, Miss Kitty? 'Cause you know I will if you ask me to." He tightens his grip on my shoulders, as though to give the lie to his promise. His mouth continues to play havoc with my nerve endings, leaving a trail of fire on my cheeks, my ears, my neck, and my lips.
"Lee, I...I 'm afraid," I admit.
"And you think I'm not?" he asks. "I am so scared that you will throw me out on my ear. Or that if we choose to pursue this, I will be a total flop. Or that if it's good between us, I won't be able to stop, and when you go away, I'll be devastated." He moans faintly. "Oh yeah, baby, I'm plenty scared!"
I feel him begin to sway gently, and to move me with his body. It is an erotic movement, bringing us hip to hip, groin to groin, heart to heart. I am moaning too by this time, and when he lowers his head for a real kiss, I am powerless to resist. His tongue explores the warm recesses of my mouth, sucking and tasting, mimicking the action he wants to perform with that other hard member of his body. He is trembling hard by now, and grinding himself against me. I strain to get as close to him as I can, wondering desperately what I will do when I must say goodbye to him. I am consumed with lust by now, and coupled with the very real feelings of affection I have for him, it is an overwhelming sensation.
He pulls himself away from me, and I whimper in protest. "Hon, are you sure?" His voice is ragged, and he is breathing hard. "I want you so badly, baby. I want to taste all of you. I want to fuck you so bad it's making me ache. I want to make love to you. So if you're not sure, tell me now and I'll leave."
He searches my face for his answer, and when I open my eyes, I see the passion he cannot hide any longer. "Can you feel how much I want you, baby? What you do to me?" He pushes up against me again, and I groan..
"Yes, Lee," I whisper.
"And do you want me, too, babe?" He looks at me, and I can see him holding himself in check, waiting for the answer to his question.
"Yes, " I sigh into his mouth, before he claims mine again in a hot, wet kiss.
"Let me see you, hon," he begs me hoarsely, and begins to undress me. All the fear and timidity I thought I would feel, and all the self-consciousness, disappear, as he kisses his way from my neck down across my breasts to my belly button to...
"Oh, Lee, please..." I am incoherent but he seems to understand. He backs me up to the bed and tumbles me onto it.
"I'll make this good for you, baby, I promise!" he vows, and presses himself into me. I open myself for him, and I am lost as he explores me with his mouth and his hands, all the while rocking into me. The world fades away -- my family, my job, his family, his job, friends, bills -- all dim into nothingness before the emotion coursing through us. We'll never have this time again, and I will not lose it...