One Brief Kiss

by Megan Auffart

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I wrote the following for a contest on another website. The rules of the contest were simple: It must be a romantic story about lesbians. And it must end in tragedy. Suffice to say, I have never written a romantic story in my entire life, let alone a gay one, so writing this was a whole new experience for me.

So, please. If you could offer any sort of constructive criticism about this story, I would be grateful. Was it successful as a tragedy/romance? Were the characters believable? Was it worth the time you spent reading it?

Thank you very much! And please, review?
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Seventeen years. It seemed longer, sometimes, whenever I would look at the calendar and wonder how every day seemed to have an X marked on it. I couldn't remember crossing out all those days, but seventeen calendars full of Xs were proof. I wasn't imagining the length of time. There was no hobgoblin to blame, destroying my sense of what day it was, what week, what year. The time had passed and I hadn't even noticed until now how stupefyingly long it had been since that day.

There is no longer any reason to mark the days, I thought and put down my pen. Sylvia had been gone for seventeen years and there wasn't any reason to wait for her.

I decided to go to the kitchen. A cup of tea sounded lovely and warm, especially given the cold eastern wind that rattled my little cottage like it was a toy. One two three... It took twelve steps to get from my living room to the kitchen going my normal pace. I took the kettle to the sink, debating a moment between waiting for the water to warm, or merely filling the kettle with cold water and letting the stove warm it at its own pace. I chose the latter and set it on the burner.

This action had taken three minutes and twenty-seven seconds, starting from the time I stood up to when I turned on the stove.

Those three minutes had been painfully obvious to me the entire time. How had I missed seventeen years?

Thinking of her, I felt a warmth on my lips from her last kiss, sweet and quick. It didn't hurt to remember it, exactly, but I knew that later tonight I would cry. There wasn't anything shameful about that fact – I cried almost every night, like clockwork. Every night it was the same.

First, I would change out of my clothing and put on a nightdress. Then I would brush my teeth and braid my hair. Finally, I would lie down in bed, turn off the light, and cry into my pillow until I felt like I could stop.

There wasn't anything wrong with that. There wasn't anything bad. There wasn't–

A memory: Sylvia stopping in my office after class. "Excuse me, Professor Heisen? Could I speak with you a moment? About the final project?"

The sunlight through my office window had caught her hair, reflecting gold. I'd seen her in class before, of course, with her mouse brown hair and lowered eyes, but I hadn't noticed her, exactly. She was before me now, however, and I could see things then that I hadn't before. The way her hands clung together, like two frightened girls, afraid of the night. There was her dress, plain and buttoned to the very top, no excess skin showing. Her simple, practical shoes and tan pantyhose with a single runner embedded themselves into my mind.

I agreed to help her with her project. I spent longer than necessary on the details, asking her questions about herself in between editing and research notations.

"What's your favorite color?"

"Who are you planning to vote for in the coming election?"

"What are your dreams?"

She came to my office every day. At first, all she'd talk about was the project, but eventually she forgot it entirely, instead telling me about her life. I learned how her father never talked to her anymore, how her mother spent all her time at church functions but never at actual mass. Her brother had died of leukemia when she'd been a small child. The day he'd died had closed off her family forever. They were strangers, she said. They might live in the same house, but no one knew anything about one another.

"Are you always alone?" I asked her.

"Well, not really. I'm at college almost all the time, now. I visit home very rarely these days."

I shook my head, keeping my smile as soft as possible. Each time Sylvia visited, her posture and manner of speaking reminded me of a deer; always alert, always ready to run.

"A person can be alone in a room crowded with people. You know that."

Sylvia looked down at her hands. "Yes, I do know that. It seems like that almost all the time."

"Almost?" I asked. There was something in her voice, just then. Like she had failed to catch herself from saying something unwanted.

She hesitated before answering. "...Yes."

"Then, when do you not feel alone?"

She continued to stare at her hands, for such a long while that I thought at first that she wasn't going to say anything at all. I opened my mouth, ready to apologize for prying, when she began to respond.

"I...The only time I don't feel alone is when...when I'm with you."

I glanced up, startled, and she was staring at me, looking me directly in the eye. A blush was lit upon her cheek. She was obviously embarrassed, but she didn't look away.

Since I'd first seen her that day in my office, I'd known that she was beautiful, but never had that fact been more apparent than at that moment. I could almost feel my heart in my chest, loudly beating again and again as I stared into her brown eyes, warm and expectant and kind.

"I feel the same way, Sylvia," I said, grateful that my voice didn't catch in my throat. I felt excited, like a kid right before Christmas morning when the packages were still unopened, but scared as well. She was so beautiful. I didn't deserve anyone as beautiful as her in my life.

"I'm glad," she said, still watching me, still looking carefully at my face as though to seek out any derision. Apparently, whatever she saw there alarmed her, for she continued in an anxious tone, "No, really! I am glad. I've never felt..." She paused, grasping for words before she continued. "You understand...me, I think. You actually listen when I speak. That's never happened before. Most of the time, whenever people talk to me, they're just waiting for a pause in the conversation so they can start saying whatever it is they want to say."

She trailed off and her eyes flicked away from mine. She was embarrassed. Any moment now she would apologize and leave the room. I knew this because this was how I behaved. Whenever I became close to someone, someone who could, with a scornful look and a derisive laugh destroy me, I would back away and never return for fear of being found out.

Too long. I waited too long. Sylvia opened her mouth and the words came out, words that I knew so well. "I'm sorry. I think I overstepped my...you know. I'm sorry."

She reached down to grab her book bag and got up to leave the room. It was happening now just as it had happened when I had done it, a thousand times. I thought I would just sit there and let it all occur. After all, she was a student and I was a professor, ten years her elder. It was improper, not to mention professional suicide. There was no logical reason to impede her retreat. There was no logic...

"Wait, Sylvia!" I cried out. I didn't sound calm, anymore. My voice was cracked and higher-pitched.

She stopped, her hand on the knob of the door, and turned around to look at me with her big brown eyes.

"Yes, Professor Heisen?"

I paused, before I got up from behind my desk and walked over to where she stood.

"Please, call me Miranda."

Tremulously, I reached up an uneven hand and touched her cheek, slowly stroking it with my fingers. Her skin was so soft, so perfect. Even though I knew at any moment she would jerk away from me, slap me across my face, scream, "Dyke! Lesbo!" in a justified rage, I knew I would remember the feel of her skin.

After that brief moment, I pulled my hand away from her face and looked aside. It would come. Any second now, the rage would begin and I would be revealed to the world for my sins. Any moment...

"Would you like to go out tonight, Miranda?"

I jerked my head towards her, my heart pounding. She was smiling at me, a blush still on her cheeks. She stood there, radiating nothing but absolute sweetness. So, so beautiful.

"Yes," I whispered. "Yes, I rather enjoy that."

The shriek of the teakettle interrupted my reverie and I got up from the sofa to remove it from the stove. I counted twelve steps into the kitchen, then three more to get to the cupboard for a teacup. I poured the water in and added the teabag, stirring it with a teaspoon from the drawer.

Twelve steps back to the couch and I was done. There was nothing left to do today, nothing on the agenda. Staring out the window at the pine trees in my yard, I slipped back into the memory.

We'd been together for seven months, following that fateful day. It had been Sylvia's last semester at the university and after she'd graduated, I felt safe enough to go out into more popular places with her. We'd spend entire weekends driving from one big city to the next, seeing the local museums and attractions during the day, making love in whatever hotel or bed-and-breakfast we could find during the nights. Occasionally, people would give us strange looks, but there was nothing overt. And as Sylvia would say, why would we bother to notice the expressions of strangers when we had each other?

She was still living in her apartment, but more and more often she would visit my townhouse outside of campus and spend the night. It was almost unspoken that she would move in after her lease was up. I like to think that she was excited about the prospect of spending each day with me. I certainly was.

A week before the decided moving time, she invited me out to dinner at a restaurant outside of town. I'd never heard of it, which was peculiar since I'd been near the area for almost five years now, but Sylvia insisted that it was an excellent place to eat, so we ended up going.

The restaurant was a small, dingy place that served traditional German food. The entire place stank of sauerkraut and with every breath I was reminded of the house I grew up in, with the barrels of fermenting cabbage stored in the basement that would reek whenever opened.

"Do you like it?" Sylvia asked me, anxiously, as I took it all in.

"It's lovely," I assured her, and followed her to the table.

We ordered beers with dinner, the more expensive imported German drafts in honor of the cuisine. The alcohol made us careless. We were in a table near the corner, which gave us the illusion of privacy, and Sylvia began to stroke my leg with her foot. I giggled at her and whispered for her to quit, but that made her only do it more so.

Ever since our relationship began, she had been getting more and more confident. I loved watching her change. She had now begun to do things on her own, make her own choices as to what she wanted to do with her time. The German restaurant idea, for instance. During the beginning of our relationship, she would never even offer suggestions as to what she wanted to do, but after a few weeks, she'd had enough self-confidence to tell me what she wanted. To actually pick a restaurant and drive me there herself was quite an achievement. I was proud of her. And I decided to tell her so.

"Oh, stop it, Miranda," she smiled and I laughed, the pint of beer rushing straight to my head. Only on second thought did it occur to me that I should have eaten something before I'd drank so much.

I leaned forward to tell her something, undoubtedly about how drunk I was feeling, when the impulse grabbed me and I reached over and kissed her on her mouth.

She was startled at first – although we'd held hands in public before, we'd never kissed – but then relaxed into it. Her warm lips felt wonderful on mine, soft and comforting and tangy with German beer. I closed my eyes, enjoying the feeling, when I heard a gasp.

Oh shit, I thought and broke away from Sylvia instantly. I knew I shouldn't be so affected by the opinions of others, but nonetheless, I was terrified of hurtful comments from strangers, of the things they could say about the two of us. Me, especially, as I was both older and uglier, obviously the more 'lesbian' of the two.

I glanced over to the woman who made the noise. It was an older lady, perhaps in her sixties, but her expression of disgust wasn't aimed at me, but rather, at Sylvia.

Gathering my courage, I turned towards Sylvia to make some sort of disarming comment about how rude people were these days, but she was staring back at the woman with a look of horror.

"Sylvia?" I asked, a question in my voice.

She glanced back at me, tears in her eyes. "Miranda, I...I'm sorry. I have to go."

"Why?"

She turned towards the woman again before flinching back. The woman had thrown her napkin onto her plate and was getting up from her chair. Sylvia started to rise as well.

Pushing her chair in automatically, she leaned over and whispered in my ear. "That woman is my mother, Miranda. I have to go explain to her. I can't just let her see us together and not give her any explanation."

"But..." I started, thinking that I would go with her and help support her, but she shushed me before I could finish.

"I have to do this alone, Miranda. I've told you about my family. She'd never make a scene in public, but I know her. And we need to talk."

"Okay," I whispered. A part of me was screaming not to let her face going it alone, to stand up and protect her from the inevitable argument that was going to come, but a stronger part of me kept me from rising. Who was I to help her with her mother? I'd never told my parents a thing about my preferences, nor anyone else. Sylvia had more courage that I ever would at this point. Who was I, the coward, to offer support?

The woman gave Sylvia a glaring, pointed look and then began marching towards the front door. Sylvia automatically began to follow, but then jerked herself to a stop before taking more than a few steps. Turning back towards me, despite all the other curious patrons in the restaurant, she leaned down to where I was sitting and kissed me one last time on the lips. It was the most fleeting of touches, but today, no matter where I am and no matter what situation I'm in, I can still remember what it felt like, that one brief kiss.

After that, she stood up, turned around, and left the restaurant without another glance behind.

I never saw her again.

Afterwards, I started keeping calendars. Time seemed too precious to leave unchecked. A moment might seem like it would last forever, but I knew that at any second, the entire world could change.

Sylvia wouldn't have just left me. I know this today and I almost knew it then, but there was that voice inside of me, nagging and doubting. It pointed out the obvious; I was older, uglier, and unworthy of her. Of course she would leave me. She probably just decided to do it then, at the restaurant before things got too complicated with the move. Why would she bother to stay with me when there were so many better women out there for her?

I'd believed this voice for the longest time. The fact that she hadn't said goodbye to me, not even during the entire month after the incident at the restaurant, didn't cause me to panic or worry about her. As pathetic of an excuse as it seems, it honestly didn't cross my mind that she hadn't left me willingly.

An entire month and I never even worried about her.

Then they found the bodies.

"Horrific Accident Kills Mother And Daughter" screamed the headlines of the local newspaper. They'd found the minivan at the bottom of a nearby lake, just beneath the cliff where a highway wound its path across the city. The guardrail had been busted open by another vehicular accident earlier that same day, destroying the section completely. That particular wreck didn't involve any fatalities. The road was cleared again for traffic soon after.

But with the lack of guardrail and no telltale signs of skid-marks, no one could tell that another accident had taken place on the exact same spot. An entire month passed before they discovered the wreck...and the bodies.

I'd driven on that road, past that very spot, every day on my way to work for that entire horrible month. Unaware of her, floating in a locked, sunken metallic hulk, dead corpse eyes staring blindly at me from the water. ...Sylvia had the most beautiful brown eyes.

The newspapers claimed that it was an accident. There were no signs of foul play, they wrote. There wasn't anything to indicate that the accident was nothing more than a case of incautious driving.

But the newspapers hadn't seen Sylvia's mother at the restaurant. They hadn't witnessed the look on her face, the absolute disgust and cold disdain.

I told no one what I knew.

I mourned in my own way, quietly, and eventually managed to get work at a different university. I couldn't drive on the highway anymore. In my office, I couldn't even open the blinds, lest the light get inside and remind me of her hair. I was paralyzed by the memories.

So I moved, got a new job and a new place in an attempt to get a new life.

That was when the counting started.

Time was precious. Every second without a tragedy was something to be noticed, to be treasured. So I would count my steps, making sure to take in each moment that the world was not pulled out from under me. It got so that I couldn't stop, and eventually, it was all I could do to concentrate on the numbers.

They went on endlessly. You could count forever, every second of every day, and still never reach the end of the numbers. Counting was a glimpse into the eternal. The numbers would last forever.

Unlike people.

I've never been with another woman since Sylvia. I've already ruined one life with my presence. I do not think I could stand to ruin another.

So here I sit, in my cottage, as my tea grows cold and the windstorm rages outside my window. Every day, for the last seventeen years, I count the minutes as they go by, each one more precious and finite than the last.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five.