tagRomanceTen Minutes to Midnight

Ten Minutes to Midnight

byLiar©

They talk about milestones. Those moments that change everything, the solidified and framed memories that you will carry to your grave. Moments that reshape who you are, what you believe in and what you reckon life is all about. They talk about notes that ring, reverberating echoes through the years, new ones blending in with older ones that will never die, reshaping the chord that is you.

They talk of many things, but what they really talk about is this. It has no name, only faint clichés that follows in its trail. It can't be stripped down to a single metaphor. There is simply nothing in the world that can contain it. It can only be told, and possibly understood, through stories. I hope my witness to this nameless, this most powerful of moments, will make you close your eyes and remember your own. Just like I have read others and remembered this.

***

"Lose the shoes."

It's the little differences that stick. Tiny little variations on what is common behaviour in otherwise seemingly similar cultures. Some of them you see immediately, like the southpaw traffic and almost perverted obsession with roundabouts in Britain. Or the way your lunch spins backward when you hurl it up and flush it down in Australia, although I'd have to work pretty hard to tag that phenomena to some Oz national trait. Others are more subtle, because you don't encounter them 24/7. But they are equally confusing. Like shoes in Iceland. Apparently, you don't wear the things.

Anna didn't wear the things. Not here at work, at least. And now she stood there a few steps into the hallway of the office, with a sweet smile on her cute-as-a-button face and an implying glare in her eye. She nodded to me to follow her example. And what the hell, when in Rome and all that, what could I do? I untied my shoes and kicked them off, trying to look as if I didn't care about the big gaping hole in the heel of my left sock. I hadn't exactly expected to be showing it to the world today. Little did I know that the only place where an Icelander wore shoes were in public places. Outdoors, in stores and restaurants, and so on. Anna had perfect socks. Clean, white, neat. Of course she did.

I felt like an ogre. One would think that Reykjavik would be filled with burly, unshaven Vikings and their burly, unshaven women. Instead, I turned out to be the least neat thing in the whole office of ReKe Tölva's main office. I hadn't slept for thirty-five hours, my clothes were as wrinkled as the landscape, and my three-day shave was more vegetation than the whole barren island could provide. The garbage cans beside every desk in the open office landscape were in better order.

But then again, beside Anna Sigundsdottir, anyone would look like a bum. She was, in the simplest of terms, the epitome of loveliness. A wide, pearly smile, glacier blue eyes that could only be described as cosy, and the kind of energetic sway in her walk that made every curve and lovely mound of her fit body whisper 'come here, come here' when she walked. She had hair that the wind loved to carry irresistible strands off and drape over her freckled face. She had a voice and a calling melody in her speech that made dogs and small children pop their heads up and listen, and that made me slightly giddy every time she spoke. She had a golden heart the size of the ocean and a bubbly personality that made me wonder if she wasn't channelling Shirley Temple.

She was my elven angel, an enchanting blend of raw sex and impish playfulness in the package of a fairy tale princess, a walking and breathing promise of something unforgettable.

***

The occasional curious pair of eyes peeked up from behind computer screens when I followed Anna through the office to the far end. But most people didn't pay enough attention to their pretty co-worker and her not-so-pretty guest. People were generally busy with phone calls or completely lost in the info on their screens. But mostly they just didn't care. The general mood seemed to be much more relaxed than any cubicle hell that I had the displeasure of working in back in the states.

"Hey," I said. "I just realised I've no idea what you do. I mean, you said you work with a website. But for what kind of place? What does this company do?"

Amazing, isn't it? We had more or less known each other for half a year, but the subject of our professions had never really come up. There had always been much more interesting things to talk about, I guess. She turned and gave me a quizzical look. Then she laughed and said "Computers." With the peculiar prosodies of the Icelandic tongue, the word came out as cum-pyoo-ter. It seems that despite reading and hearing lots of it, their own language makes the actual pronunciation of English very difficult to master.

"I forget that it's not obvious to you," she continued, "but it's right there in the name of the company. Tölva means computer. We sell PCs, and we're also the biggest DSL provider in the area. ReKe is short for Reykjavik and Keflavik. That's the area we deliver to. Or rather, where we originally delivered. We are nation wide these days. By far the biggest supplier in Iceland."

She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Gosh, shut up already miss Anna, you sound like a sales pitch," she said to herself.

"Oh, no, it's interesting," I lied.

"You're lying."

"Ok, I'm lying, you bore me to tears."

She stuck a pink tongue out at me and dug in her purse for a key card, which she waved in front of a panel beside an anonymous looking door. A faint click told me that it was unlocked and Anna pulled the door open. It was a much thicker and heavier one than it looked like from the outside. A foot of solid metal, it seemed. A gust of cold air and a roar of fans poured out from inside.

"It's the server room," Anna said. "I forgot some papers in here when I went to get you at the airport. Wait here, I'll be right out."

She slipped inside and the door closed with a click, completely sealing off the commotion inside. The office produced it's own cacophony of ringing phones, casual conversations and keyboards clattering. A radio churned out rock music at a low volume from one corner, and a window was open to the street in another. As a working environment, it was not exactly peace and quiet, but it still seemed to do wonders to reduce the stress level of the people who worked there. Casual comfortable and relaxed, as well as nicely proportioned, stylish and impeccably clean. Just like Anna.

I wasn't dreaming about fucking the brains out of the entire office though. So there was a difference.

"You the secret boyfriend?" a voice by my side said.

I had been drowsing off to the susurrus of the room, and a blonde spiky hairdo, a movie star face and way too many piercings were peering up at me from the Xerox on my left. The face's owner, a 20-something man with a three-day shave and hands that looked like they could crush bare rock, was busy refilling the machine's paper feeder. He gave me a grin that could either cut glass or charm you to death, before continuing his wrestling game with a stuck paper tray.

"Could you give me a hand here?" he said. "Piece of shit is stuck again. I need to pull at three places at the same time."

With the spike man's guidance I grabbed hold of the front of the tray, while he banged his fist against the back of the machine. Nothing happened, except a muttered line of profanities from him. Or at least I think he was cursing. The few words I recognised were certainly not nice ones.

"No luck?" I said.

"No, I need to get medieval on this bastard's ass. But thanks for the help. So, are you sleeping with her or not?"

This was getting weirder by the minute.

"What? Who?"

"You know who," said Spike's voice from behind the copier. "The sex on legs in the server room. The jerk-off fantasy of every human being in this room."

"Speak for yourself, Arní," a dark haired girl in a Linux t-shirt at a nearby desk called out. "You know it's you that I want."

Spike, or Arní, gave up a laugh. "Ain't gonna happen. You know I'm not into your—things."

The Linux girl chuckled. "Denial, denial. All you need is a good hard strap-on up your ass, and you'll come around."

Arní said something in Icelandic to the woman. I didn't recognise anything except that it ended with "American".

"Me?" Linux laughed. "I'm not the one interrogating him about who he is boning."

"Look, I'm not—uuh—sleeping—" I began.

"Of course you're not," Arní said. "You just got off the plane for crying out loud. But you're the new guy, aren't you? Jamie—ah—something. The one she's been all girly-giggly and head-in-the-clouds about for weeks. Right?"

"I—well, I hope so. Or else she's really been leading me on."

***

It had been a spark across proxies and routers that I never thought was possible. A silly little IRC banter one winter night, with just another anonymous line of bytes masked as human response. We talked about nothing, about everything, about the sheer pleasure of sharing a nexus across the dead of wire and digital modulation. A blink of an eye later, hours had passed and my head was tingling with exhaustion. Hours, had it really been that long?

I don't even remember what she called herself. It started with an M—whatever. It doesn't matter. She logged on with a different handle every day. But from that first day, I knew. I just knew it was her when another conspicuous handle appeared in the participant list. It was as if I heard her voice, a voice I hadn't even experienced for real. It was in the rhythm of the sentences, the uniqueness of punctuation, the choice of words. All those little things told me that it was her, who she was, what she felt, her mood and her reactions.

I imagined her lips shape the words I witnessed on screen, her fingers resting on a keyboard, her eyes scanning my words, the signal I pained for, keystrokes I chose in anguish to find those that would please her the most. I became nothing short of addicted. I clung to my keyboard night after night, my heart stopping every time she revealed herself to me, in a new disguise every time, my heart sinking every time she didn't show up. And every time, there was that sudden rush of dead cold fear. What if she didn't sense what I sensed? What if I meant nothing to her? What if all I was to her was letters on a screen, a little digital amusement, an online pet-project to be discarded when boredom kicked in? What if she was, in fact, just leading me on?

***

"Oh, she hasn't." the Linux girl said. "One thing about Anna: She would never lie to me about things like that. But I think she's blowing smoke up your ass right now, though."

"What do you mean?" I said.

"Do you really think she's still in there collecting paper, like she told you? It's been five minutes! She's probably curled up in a corner, hyperventilating into a bag."

"What?"

"She told me about picking you up at the airport in the afternoon. She's been a nervous wreck all day. Couldn't sit still at the morning briefing, couldn't answer the phone without her voice trembling, couldn't get a single mouthful down at lunch. I was seriously worried that she'd have a fit and drive off the road on the way out to meet you."

Arní chuckled from behind the copier. "So that's what the little cutie was doing all day. I was beginning to wonder."

I had to close my eyes and think back. The woman waving at me from the crowd at Keflavijk's arrival gate had radiated warmth, strength and comfort that made my own fluttering worries curl up and blow away.

"She didn't seem nervous at all to me." I said

But I realised that it wasn't true. There had been little signs, little glitches in the welcoming mask. The way she didn't hold my gaze for more than a few seconds, the way she spoke just a little bit too fast. The small, tense strain in her temple and how she kept her eyes glued to the road when she drove us back to the city.

"You didn't see her eyes when she came in now," Linux said. "Nervous is just the beginning. Anna wants you bad, she's totally off-the-chain crazy about you, take my word for it. But I think she's terrified you don't feel the same way."

I managed a sheepish grin. It seemed like open honesty was the fad around here, so I could as well jump on the bandwagon. "Well, she has nothing to worry about there. I'm smitten silly, to put it poetically."

"Good," the girl said. "Really good. She needs some positive things coming her way, with all the crap she's been through. But for god's sake, don't tell me that you like her. Tell her!"

Why hadn't I already? Same old tongue-tied-disease as always, I guess. The concrete in my legs and the local tranquilizer shot to my tongue every time the opportunity and occasion rose to say those words. Words that I had roaring inside of me, words that could cut granite and part oceans. Well, that was then, and this was now. And this time I knew exactly why I didn't say them.

"That's a little hard to do with a bomb shelter grade steel door and a digital security lock between us," I said.

"Pussy," Arní said, half to me and half to the copier's paper tray that he finally managed to pull free. "Do you call that an obstacle? I proposed to my girlfriend via cell phone in a life raft while the fishing boat I was on sunk to the bottom of the sea. So never give up."

"Except," Linux interrupted. "She didn't say yes."

"Now, that's another story." Arní said. "Turned out she was already busy jumping the bones of another guy when I called. Anyway, what I mean is that if there's a will, there's a handsome devil with a way. In this case me, and my index finger."

"Your—index finger?" I said.

"The very same index finger that will punch you the key code to the door."

"Oh, that finger."

He stood up and went over to the little key panel. Four faint beeps later, there was an even fainter click. Arní pulled down the door handle and carefully opened the heavy door. The rumbling of cooling engines and the chilly air from inside leaked out into the room, slid over my face and surrounded me like the strangest siren's call in human history. Arní peeked into the room and then turned his head back to me and winked. He nodded me closer.

"She didn't notice us," he whispered, barely audible over the roar of fans. I glanced into the room, and saw Anna's slender shape sitting with her back against us on a chair. She had her hands clasped behind her neck, and her neck pulled down so her elbows rested on the desk before her. Her upper body rocked slowly back and forth, and she took short, fast breaths. It was a side of her I'd never seen, a far cry from the impish supernova of confidence, the persona she had thrown at me at the airport. It struck me like a slap in the face. She agonized and over-dramatized, just like me, battled her insecurity and every terrible little what-if that she could think of. Just like me. Just like—everybody, I guess.

***

That was my milestone, the key definer, the note that would ring for the rest of my life. Seeing her there, at her most private, guard down, vulnerable, human, for real for the very first time, and as scared as I was... that cut the last cord of caution for me, the last qualifier I had set up in defence against what I felt. It made me want to wrap my arms around her and never let go. It made me hell-bent on doing it.

Arní looked at me and worded a "go" before stepping aside. I quietly snuck into the room and saw the man close the door again behind me. In the swirl of air and whooshing of fan blades, I didn't hear anything when the door clicked into place again. No wonder Anna just sat there, oblivious of what had happened. Her back was straight now, and her hands covered her face. It almost hurt to look at her. To see that distress in the way she moved her hands, that anxiety in huddling shoulders. But only almost, since I knew how to end it. It had freed me from my own remaining demons, and laid out a path that I was bound to follow. I knew what to do. Or rather, I knew of nothing else. Not even waiting or backing out.

Ten careful steps later, I was so close that I could reach out and touch her. My hands could have warmed the goosebumps on her arms, caressed her delicate neck and slid down around, down her neckline, and further. I could have leaned down and kissed her soft skin, breathed in the herbs, perfumes and human fragrances of her hair, and whispered tender words into her ear. But it was not what I wanted, not right then. Instead I held my breath for a few more seconds, drinking in the sight of her beauty, just revelling in the moment before.

It was her hands that I was after. The ones she held up before her face now. She tried, it seemed, to read some sense into the lines in her palms, to find an answer to the question that haunts us all. What shall I do? I had the answer. Just let go, let it happen, let me guide you. I knew that I could. And I would. Somehow, I would.

I quickly reached around her shoulders and grabbed her wrists. Startled and scared, she cried out in surprise and tried instinctively to break free from my hands. Adrenaline would have given her a fair chance, had I not anticipated it, and tightened the grip. I hoped I wasn't hurting her, but that would be over in a second or two anyway. Lifting her arms above her head, I quickly pulled her around. She spun easily in the rotating office chair, and as soon as she turned around enough to see who I was, her panicked struggling was replaced with a stunned stillness. I took the opportunity to pull her up to me.

She stared at me, bewildered, lost for words or notions to guide her through the situation. It was just a moment, just a second of eyes locked to eyes, but it said more about her than all the time we had talked from the airport to her office, more than all the weeks of endless nightly phone calls and webcam chatting, more than all the months of tentative online messaging and email interaction. It said things that you can't even begin to put into words. Because there are no words in that language, only actions. And actions was what I was going for. As long as I spoke in those, no words would get in the way.

In an instant, I let go of her wrists, let my arms wrap around her waist, pulled her body to mine and placed my lips on hers. Only then did it occur to me what the hell I was doing. I was kissing her, kissing Anna. Stealing a kiss, feeling the warm sense of her beautiful lips on mine, for the very first time. It was the moment that I had been circling closer and closer to for months. And now it was there. It was all I could do not to scream directly into her mouth. This was it. Everything, the rest of my existence, hanged onto the moment, balanced on the scale of her reaction. It all came down to that one heartbeat.

Or so I thought.

Apparently, it took Anna's overloaded mind a few more seconds to come around. First, she tore her head away from mine. Then she clenched her hands into fists, bore them into the front of my ribs and pushed me away. Her eyes were all over the place, her face a strange mix of a thousand alien, aggressive emotions, and her voice was strained on the verge of a scream.

"What the fuck do you think you..." she began.

But then the barbwire attitude frown faded away, and she lost trail of her words. She blinked once, then once again, and looked up into my face. We stood like that, motionless while the impact of the situation solidified around us. It became a cocoon, a universe of two, a shelter of realization that something fundamental had changed. In there, everything was all right, there were no doubts, no second thoughts and hesitation. Slowly, Anna's pose straightened, her tense shoulders relaxed, and her breathing slowed down. What my own body did, I can only guess. I had my entire attention focused on her. A hint of a gleam had woken in her eyes, and a tiny fraction of a smile was forming on her lips. The cocoon shrunk, as she took the step that breached the distance between us.

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