99 Erotic Notions #9: Germs
By Hapax Legomenon

99 Erotic Notions Index
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"Ladies and gentlemen, we just got a weird request. But we’re going to do it anyway."
Final line, Baby It's You

My friend Milena studied abroad in Germany for her junior year of college.

During that year, many things would happen. I would break my collar bone, fall in love with Natalie Portman and take a cross-country bus trip. I also decided to skip graduate school – for a few years anyway. I never heard from Milena until April, when she announced (via email) that she had fallen in love. That girl! Of course, the same would happen to me several years later (or so I thought). After studying abroad, Milena would return from Germany a changed woman. She became more vocal and outgoing, less interested in creativity, more committed to changing the world. She developed a love for environmental politics. She talked about Jonathan (that was his name). Both of them had a master plan. After graduating, she would go to London to be with him (obtaining a master's degree in the process). While I spent senior year goofing off, Milena was hunting down recommendation letters, working on a political campaign and planning her trip to UK. She lived off campus in senior year, so I rarely saw her – sometimes in the class hallways, once even at the campus coffee shop. That year was so busy – not just for her but both of us. After graduation Milena reunited with Jonathan in England. I returned to Chicago. A few years later I heard Milena was in Colorado again (minus her English boyfriend), running around with an ecotourism group. I suppose by now she is happily married, working for next to nothing on some futile campaign to save the world.

That was the future, before I even cared about the past. But when I was 20, all I cared about was the present. Milena had called to say she would be spending a night in Chicago (where I lived) before her big trip to Germany. I met her at the airport, glad to see her before she left. We went to Rice University in Houston. We agreed it was a crappy school, but she had a scholarship, and I foolishly thought I would study mechanical engineering. By the end of sophomore year, we realized the futility of transferring schools. We already made friends and completed two years of prerequisites. We even enjoyed the football games. Besides, when Milena learned that overseas courses counted towards her major, she resolved to make the best of a bad decision. As she explained, "there's no point in dwelling on what we should have done two years ago."

When I tried to hug her at the airport, she brushed me away. "Don't. I have a cold." Yes, she was sniffling. But she didn't look awful; she never did. Did I mention she was beautiful? She had slender arms and a quiet delicate grace. In large groups she was quiet and perfectly content with herself. But all alone she was an entirely different person – unafraid to say bizarre, unexpected things and laugh scurrilously at anything that mocked convention. She was still a girl, still a little girl. Or maybe not, but she liked pretending to be. Sometimes it was hard to tell if her modesty was authentic or just a pose to amuse her closest friends. And yet I loved this about her: it was charming; I loved it very much. She had loads of friends, boyfriends even. Although she was reserved around most people, I could say with pride that around me she was less reserved, more willing to joke. In freshman year we worked on the school newspaper and spent many a night in the Thresher office doing last minute editing or layout. One evening, on a lark, Milena and I took a walk around campus, eventually sitting at the topmost bleacher of a deserted stadium. The wind was blowing in our faces, and silence enveloped us as we stared at the distant city lights. That was the time, I thought. Do it. There will never be a better time. Do it! The urge to plant a kiss on her lips shuddered throughout me. The night was quiet, and we sat, doing nothing, making the occasional comment about nothing in particular. But as much as I wanted to, I didn't. It didn't feel right. Milena was preoccupied by the night silence and trivialities of conversation. Besides, we were at peace. To kiss her, to try to kiss her would break the serenity captivating us, and bring us back to the mundane. A kiss would be a challenge, an opening salvo to an argument. I didn't want to challenge; I just wanted to be. Also, I was afraid. It wasn't the way I dreamt it would be; there wasn't that magical tingly feeling of mutual adoration, only the sharp lonely pang of passion and need.

At the Chicago airport Milena had three heavy bags which we dragged over to the hotel shuttle. I lived an hour away in the suburbs and offered to show her the town that last night. After dropping her things at the hotel, Milena took a quick shower while I played around with the television. I heard the water running, and the thought occurred to me that she was in there naked, no more than ten feet away, her body enveloped in a warm and gentle rain. It was a daily ritual for her, but also the only time of day when she remembered her body and physical sensations, a body I had imagined and recalled imagining many many times. She took a few minutes to dry her hair, and when the door finally opened, she stepped out of the steamy fog, bright, shiny, smelling of shampoo and fresh clothes. "Well," she said, "are you ready?"

At the restaurant, while listening to the jazz band and waiting for dinner, we talked about odds and ends; she told me how she planned to meet a friend in Baden-Baden in four days and how her future roommate in Heidelberg had already emailed her (in German!), inviting Milena to her family cottage along the Rhine. She talked about a prison for students next to the University of Heidelberg and how she would surely send me a postcard or photo of her inside one of the cells. Although I didn't say it, I felt jealous. While Milena was off on her travel adventures, I would be spending the next year stuck in Houston, a place that was not the film capital of the world. But Europe would never leave or disappear; it would always be there for me. I had a lifetime to visit it, even perhaps Heidelberg. Perhaps some day I could be at that same prison, sending photos to some lovely faraway person.

Milena reached into her purse and pulled out her passport, but when she tried to show it to me, she sneezed all over it. We both laughed.

"Sorry," she said, wiping off the phlegm with one of her many kleenexes. "Gosh, I hate traveling with a cold. I'm sorry I couldn't be healthier."

"Do you want to return to the hotel?" I said.

"No, I'll be ok. I need one last night of fun before leaving American soil."

"Isn't it ironic," I said, "that I'll be the last friend of yours from America to see you. What if some terrorist hijacked your plane to Columbia, and you were never heard from again?"

"Please, think positively."

"Positively? Maybe the hijacker wants to go to Tahiti."

"Or Costa Rica," she said. "I heard that's beautiful."

"I'd book that one. Of course, with my luck, the hijacker would crash the damn thing over the Gulf of Mexico."

"Please," she said, "I'm the one getting on the plane tomorrow, not you. Anyway, you should feel honored to be the last recognizable face I'll see in America."

"I am honored," I laughed, but in fact I was deadly serious.

"Yes," she said, almost with an air of resignation. "It's too bad we never had the opportunity to see more of each other last year. You always were so much fun." She blew her nose discreetly into a kleenex.

"What do you mean? You were the one always busy. Busy with your boyfriend."

"Boyfriend? Ian's been out of the picture for almost a year now."

"Or should I say, 'boyfriends?' Stephen, John and that guy with the beard and wacky T-shirts. What was his name?"

"Those weirdos!" she said dismissively. "They were just guys from history class. Our group went out for drinks after the weekly study group. I'd hardly call them friends."

I feigned a flippant attitude. "Well, darn. If I had known that, I probably would spent more time with you."

Our eyes met for a moment, and then Milena's drifted away. "It's too bad," she said with a sniffle, or maybe a whiff of sadness.

The conversation quickly reverted to something silly – a new movie or song, but all this time I was absorbing what she had said. "It's too bad we never had the opportunity to see more of each other." What did she mean? It's too bad we never had the opportunity. We? Had she wanted something more? This all came out of the blue. Was it possible that even a small portion of the attraction I had felt for her had been requited? A voiceless shudder passed through me. Had I been misreading her for the past two years? Hardly call them friends? That meant she regarded me as a friend. Just a friend? It's too bad. Those were her words. What was too bad? That we were friends? Was that bad? Why did she say it was too bad? More importantly, why hadn't I noticed her interest before?

Back in freshman year, she became romantically involved with Ian only two weeks after school began, and that continued for more than a year. Actually, I hung around the two of them quite a bit (and even stayed friends with Ian after the breakup). That's irony. A year ago, she and Ian were madly in love and planning to live together. And now neither person wanted to see the other while I remained friends with both, and was the last person Milena would see before leaving the USA. Yes, this was the dreaded "friendship zone." But tonight was different. She was smiling at me differently. Or was I just now noticing it?

As we meandered on some other banal topic, I suddenly blurted out, "do you want to know a secret?"


"I've always had a crush on you."

She looked at me with amazement. "Whoa," she said, laughing a little, then leaving an uncomfortable pause. "Tony, you're really full of surprises tonight."

"Yes," I said softly, as it dawned on me that Milena wasn't suddenly going to admit to some grand overwhelming passion.

"Well, gosh, Tony," she said, nodding her head. "Your timing is remarkable." She paused and gave a sad, cynical laugh. She seemed about to say something, but then changed her mind and kept it to herself. "I guess it's futile to talk about such things now."

"I guess I had always been crazy about you," I continued, knowing that once I started I wouldn't be able to stop. This might be my last and only time to talk like this. "When I saw you for the first time reading a book underneath a tree, I wondered how great it would be to know you better. Then you showed up at the newspaper office, and we saw each other almost every day. But you were seeing Ian and after Ian, that other guy – "

"There was NOT another guy."

"Whatever. I viewed you as one of those out-of-reach girls that a person could dream about. I thought you liked me only as a friend. Tell me, was I wrong?"

Milena sighed. Although she paid close attention to my words, she seemed on the verge of a sneeze and closed her eyes. When nothing came, she said, "excuse me."

"No, go ahead."

She sat with her eyes closed, waiting unsuccessfully for a sneeze to come out. When nothing did, she opened her eyes again, and took out a kleenex. "Excuse me."

"Do you need medicine?"

"No, I'm already doped up."

"I guess it's not a good time to be making confessions."

"Don't worry about it," she said in a low voice. "You've been very sweet."

"Was this something you thought about?" Knowing she'd be on that plane tomorrow made it easier to be honest. And easier to face a letdown. Milena hesitated, so I went on nervously. "I had always thought...that I was in love with you."

Milena touched my arm with her hand while trying to avoid contact with any exposed area of skin that might infect me. "You are very sweet," she repeated.

"How did you feel? Could we ever have become more than just friends?"

"Nothing is impossible," she said. "You make it sound as if 'just friends' is slightly awful."

"No, I didn't mean that." I suddenly realized I had nothing more to say. Milena sat next to me quietly, holding her head back and closing her eyes.

"Are you all right?"

Milena opened her eyes again. "I'm fine. My nose is a faucet, and my throat is pretty sore. But I'll be fine." Milena paused, took a deep breath and continued talking. "It's like this. There was a time when I would have – yes, at the football game – do you remember when the group went to the opening game, and we were talking about kindergarten teachers? And you told the joke about the man with the cellphone? Remember? On that day, I was thinking about how wonderful you were, and how nice it would be to spend the rest of the night talking with you. Do you remember?"

Of course. It was a breezy night, and we had walked back to the dorms together after the game. It wasn't a romantic time at all; both of us were just saying silly things. I guess I could have spent all night talking to her, but the game was over, it was getting late, and you didn't have time for drinks. Something about a school assignment you had to finish. The time you were most attracted to me was the time I thought you were trying to get rid of me.

"It's funny how things worked out," she said.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm really sorry. If I had known, maybe I would have – "

"Would have what?"

"Kissed you."

We looked at each other for a few moments, then Milena gave me a happy-go-lucky "c'est la vie " kind of expression. "Oh well," she said.

What a fucking idiot I had been. During freshman and even part of sophomore year I had thought a few times about calling her out of the blue and inviting her to a concert or something. But whenever I imagined the conversation, I would always sound awkwardly desperate, and she would have always have a ready excuse for declining. I never had the courage to hope. And yes, now everything was too late. The airplane would take her away tomorrow, and I would even be the one to escort her.

But that was a pessimist's view of the situation. There was time still. She was with me, and we were together in the restaurant eating pie and drinking coffee, uncertain what to do. There was time. I held her hand in almost a panic, "Let's get out of here," I said, and she agreed.

As we walked to the nearby El stop for the train to the hotel, I suddenly became aware of the night, the fact that we were alone and I was the only one she knew in this gargantuan city. I took her hand and held it while Milena looked at me, slightly alarmed, but never saying a word. "Please," I said, moving closer and kissing her on the lips. It was a little sudden, and she consented without any visible sign of cooperation. Suddenly, she broke away and said, "No, please. I have a cold. You don't know what you're doing. Let me go."

We arrived at the Damen El stop and started waiting.

"I'm sorry," she said. I said nothing. "Listen," she said, "don't take it personally. I'm leaving tomorrow. I can't think about the past or what might have been. I'm sorry. Tony, are you mad at me? I didn't mean to offend you. It's just... I have a cold! If you get it too, I'll feel guilty when I'm on the plane. You're a great friend. Call it love or whatever you want. I like your company and am enjoying this evening quite a bit. "

"I'm not mad, " I said, watching the tracks for the next train. Her eyes were reddened with nasal congestion, and I half-wondered if they might have been tears. It was 10:30. She looked sick as a dog. I felt bad about having told her all this when her physical state made her so miserable. Maybe letting these things come out was a mistake. I put my arms around her and held her, noticing that neither of us was willing to let go. The embrace was not romantic or sexual, just calming; and when she finally let go, she looked at me with a tender smile, as though she saw in my eyes a new possibility, a new hope, a new source of warmth. As the train approached, she said, "On second thought, I don't feel that bad. I probably look worse than I actually feel."

"You look beautiful to me now."

"Liar!" she laughed. "Let's go somewhere. Do you dance?"

"It's your last day in America. We can do anything you want."

She looked out at the city and smiled. "Let's walk around. I'm feeling better."

I didn't know much about Bucktown and or what kind of dance clubs were around. But we walked towards the lights and music, lingering momentarily at shop windows full of vintage clothes and curious jewelry, stopping at the entrance of a club. From the outside we couldn't tell what it would be like, but inside, we realized that it was a techno/industrial place with lots of smoking European types funking it up. Milena led us through the crowd, and we started dancing to a kind of mindless noise I'd never heard before. The music was loud, pounding and completely foreign to me, and Milena smiled as she moved around, imitating the steps of people around us. Half an hour later, Milena yelled in my ear, "Maybe there's another club with decent music?"

We went down the street to a club playing country rock and blues. Milena was frantically trying to dance along, and I tried keeping up, laughing at the silliness of it. Thank god nobody we knew could see us. During the slow songs, we held each other close; I could feel the sweat of her arms and face, and still I kissed her, twirling around, struck by the moment and the lights and the fact we were together, close friends among strangers, acting the parts of people in love. And we were in love. For the moment anyway, a moment I was carefully preserving for memory.

For the rest of the night, our hands were always together. From the time we returned to her hotel, we were kissing. Never mind the sniffles or sneezes or germs. Never mind! By this time, Milena had given up saying no. We continued talking – whispering – and laughing at secret silly things that mattered only on this special night. We were on her bed, all over one another. My hand underneath her breast, caressing, pleasing her. It was calmness and the urgent need to uncover everything, to trace intimate circles of desire around her sighing female world. I slipped my hand over her underwear and brushed it lightly, waiting a few moments for her skin to accustom itself to the sensation. Nothing was really special about her body, except that tonight it was open to me. Now I was allowed to find her desire which (like my own) had always been masked by politeness, schedule conflicts and a tendency to superimpose the intellectual over the romantic. But tonight we were two people alone to the world, grasping, whispering, adoring.

We didn't fuck, if that's what you're wondering. She didn't let me. She had a cold, she said. Didn't want to start anything the day before. When I told her I loved her, she took my hand off her breast and said that was why we shouldn't go all the way. It didn't matter, I guess. I knew for the first time that she loved me, that I could be allowed to love her, that for a single night we could dream of the passionate love that might have existed between us. In our slumber, and only in our slumber, did we become lovers.

The next morning was a rush. The alarm failed to go off. As I held her sleeping body in the darkness, I noticed that the nightstand clock said 9:00. Something had gone terribly wrong; we were supposed to receive a wakeup call at 8:15; the plane would leave at 10:20. Cracks of sunlight seeped into the room as I rested my arm over her breasts, allowing myself one final moment of warmth before everything would start moving away. She was sound asleep. I looked at her cheeks, her neck, her curves, her pussy, her ears, her swollen nose, her sleeping face which looked not beautiful or sexy, but intensely private and childlike. I wanted to whisper something into her dozing ear; I wanted to wake her with some soothing remark, something profound or romantic or grateful or warm or sexual or totally attentive. Instead, I said what I had to say: "Milena, wake up. You're late. It's nine o'clock."

Milena kept her eyes closed, and then blinked up at me uncomprehendingly. "Time to get up," I repeated. She glanced at the alarm clock and gasped. "My god!" She jumped out of bed oblivious to our nakedness. "They were supposed to call!" she said.

"Look, get dressed, and we'll get you out of here."

"My god," she cried. "I can't be late after all this! My parents are going to kill me!"

"You're not going to be late."

"Damn!" she said, throwing things into her suitcase with increasing anger. "I told the hotel people how important this wakeup call was."

"Please," I said. "Let's not panic. We'll get to the airport in 15 minutes. Where's your ticket and passport?"

"Over there," she said, half-able to concentrate. "I need to take a shower."

"There's no time."

"It will just be a moment." She rushed into the shower, and I called the front desk for a taxi. While she finished showering, I brought her suitcases down to the taxi stop and waited. 9:07.

Hair still wet and blouse still unbuttoned, Milena came rushing out to the taxi pickup at 9:16.

"Everything ok?" I said.

Milena sat in the taxi and began rummaging through her purse while the taxi sped away.

"Is there a problem?" I said.

"No, where's your cellphone?"

"Here," I said, handing it to her. Last night we had talked about her using it for last minute goodbyes.

9:19. While the taxi driver darted through traffic, she talked to her parents about Chicago, the Baden Baden accomodations and when she would call next. Apparently her mother mentioned a blouse she had forgotten. Milena cursed and pleaded with her mom to ship it to Heidelberg. "You can? Excellent!" She smiled and gave me the "thumbs up" sign. "Okay, Mom, I will, okay, yes, not today, yes, I know, probably not, okay, I love you, okay, Mom! I have to go!" She hung up. "What time is it?"


"God!" she said. "I can't believe we're this late. They said to be there 90 minutes early for international flights. Wait!"


"She could give my blouse to Diane." She redialed and asked her mom to drop off the blouse at Diane's house. Diane, I guessed, was another student leaving for Heidelberg next week. Milena repeated the instructions and hung up like a changed person, no longer panic-stricken but confident that from now on, everything would go her way. "What time is it?"


"Relax," the driver said, while they sat at a traffic light. The man was used to transporting people frantically trying to make up lost time.

I held her hand tightly and kissed her. "How much time?" I asked.

"Five to seven minutes. No problem at all. After the next turn, I'll have you at International Departures." The taxi lunged past a red light and veered right, pushing Milena against me for an instance.

"This cabdriver is awesome," she whispered. She dialed another number, her brother in New York. He wasn't home, so she left a voice mail. "Hey, it's me, just wanted to say I'm at the airport and about to get on the plane. I promise to tell you about every beer I drink. I love you and by the way, I ended up not taking dad's suitcase after all. Say hello to Emmett, and don't get mad at him for ruining the carpet. Bye!"

"I should call Janice," she said. Janice was her roommate. Milena found the number in the address book and laughed loudly when she answered. Apparently Janice was still in bed. They gabbed rapidly about last night's pasta primavera and how she had overslept and how I had given her the "grand tour." "By the way," she said to me, "Janice says hello."

"Hello, Janice," I called out to the phone.

9.33. The taxi pulled in, and we stormed through the airport terminal, weaving through youth groups and luggage carts and pilots to find flight information on the wall of monitors. Lines were everywhere, and whole families were snaking around the cordoned maze of lines. Irrelevant announcements on the loudspeaker called attention to the fact that time was either standing still or rushing by, depending on your circumstances and reason for being there. When we stopped at Milena's airline, at least 80 people stood in line ahead of us.

9.37. I walked past the people in line to a nearby ticket counter, explaining Milena's situation. The woman waved me forward, and I called out to Milena, who immediately hung up the phone and hurried over. After the clerk took the bags, checked her ID and handed her a boarding pass, Milena breathed a sigh of relief and told the woman, "Thank you for saving my butt!"

9.44. We ran unencumbered to the security checkpoint. When we stopped at the line (actually a series of 6 different lines), I said, "wait!"


I grabbed her, held her and kissed her in full public view, oblivious to the people and the rush of everything, the fact we were out of breath and the world was waiting for us to say goodbye. Time was running through us and past us, and yet this single kiss kept our hearts momentarily in the present. I couldn't bring myself to let go. "I don't want you to leave. "

Milena sighed and laughed affectionately. "So after all this running around, you tell me not to leave." She planted a quick kiss softly on my lips. I noticed that we stood underneath a digital clock that read 9:49. "Thank you for your help," she said, handing my cellphone back to me. "You've been fantastic."

"Thank you," I said in a low voice, still holding her. "I'm glad we could be totally open about everything."

"Yes. What a surprise!"

"By the way, how's your cold?"

She smiled. "Not bad, surprisingly. It's a good day for traveling."

"You have my email address?"

"Don't worry."

"What an evening."

"Oh, Tony."

The line was moving, and she was almost to the front.

"It's time for me to leave," she said.

I held her close, and Milena gave me a quick kiss. "It's time to say goodbye. I'm sorry."

I watched her go through the security checkpoint and walk away.

"Milena!" I called out. "Milena!"

Milena turned around and looked in my direction with amazement or even embarrassment.

I didn't have anything to say. I just wanted to see her face one last time.

"The prison, " I said. "Make sure to send a photo of the prison."

At first, she didn't understand, but when I repeated it, she nodded, gave me a crazy look and said something inaudible while waving one last time.

She turned around and seconds later, she was gone. I just stood there, underneath a clock that read 9:53, watching the people flow by – an Indian family rushing to greet a father, an older woman looking out for her ride, a stewardess cheerfully towing her luggage. Then it hit me. She was gone, all gone. An excited caress, a private laughter, a momentary sense that the world was not all loneliness.

Written February, 1998; Revised February, 2004.

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