In a Twisted Parallel Universe...

Cath UK & Not saying girl

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Airports have a peculiar feel to them; the atmosphere there is one of bustle, unreality, exoticism. They are filled with transients, people who come from somewhere and are heading for somewhere else. There is no sense of permanence, except perhaps about the staff, but they burn with an entirely different light. Somehow, though they are more real than the transients in a sense, they fade into the background, as if they were the ones who didn't belong instead of the visitors.

Being in a Western European airport gives you a feeling similar to one you attain when you are mildly stoned. Everything seems unfamiliar, otherworldly, and almost surreal. Everything there tends to be new, polished, in sterile colours and ultramodern designs. Walking through an airport is like floating in a sea of unfamiliar faces; you let the currents of the crowd and the myriad of escalators carry you to places you don't necessarily know or want to go.

This is exactly how I am feeling right now, like I am under the influence of a gentle drug, or just lost in a twisted parallel universe, at the same time there and not there. It might be the airport and its ambience, or it could simply be because I've been awake for twenty-three hours straight, having just stepped out of an eight hour flight from Montreal to Zurich. I desperately wanted to sleep aboard the aircraft, but I couldn't.

I was all set to sleep... I'd not gotten a lot of shut eye the night before, and I'd drunk two of those little airplane-sized bottles of wine, which got me pleasantly relaxed and a little bit drowsy, what with the rarefied pressurized air and all. At what was approximately nine o'clock my time, my eyes were dropping shut of their own accord, and as I stared out the window and into the inky darkness, I thought it would only be a matter of minutes before I would drift off.

I shut my eyes. I began nodding away. And then, it started.

Somewhere in the front of an airplane, someone began to have one of the most spectacular sneezing fits I'd ever heard. They weren't especially pleasant, more the dry, cough-like sneezes that I tend to find unremarkable rather than stimulating. And yet, they were coming with such spectacular regularity and persistence that I couldn't help listening in. It must have been either something in the air or the air pressure itself, but every thirty seconds or so, a loud cough-sneeze would resound from the otherwise quiet darkness of the front of the seating area.

I tried valiantly to ignore it, but it came again and again.

"Cshhh!... Cshhh!... Cshhh!... Cshhh!... Cshhhh!"

I waited for it to stop, but it didn't. In fact, instead of lessening, it seemed to be getting worse. Pretty soon, it wasn't every thirty seconds, it was every fifteen, and then at even lesser intervals. It was driving me nuts. How the other people managed to sleep through it, I'll never know, but it was definitely keeping me wide-awake!

Don't get me wrong - I enjoy a good sneeze as much as the next sneeze fetishist (which usually means "way too much"), but there was something about these that kept them from being even remotely sexy for me: they were obviously being produced by a young child. I tried pretending it was from a young woman, which at least would have made them palatable, but these sneezes were obviously escaping from the nose and mouth of someone aged below ten years.  It completely spoiled for me what might under other circumstances have been a pleasant surprise.

And so, since there was nothing else I could do, I sighed and decided to enjoy the last of my rapidly fading wine buzz. I read for a while, and then used my tired eyes to simply stare out the window, where there was nothing to look at, unless you happen to enjoy vast canvases of pitch black, and waited for the flight to be over. Had there been a way to pry that window open and jump out, I would seriously have considered it as the child up front (it sounded like a little girl) sneezed on and on and on and on...

Looking at the bright side of spending a nuit blanche, the sunrise I got to witness was spectacular, all in lusciously warm tones of orange and pink. By the time it happened, the sneezing had finally stopped. It literally lasted over an hour, perhaps even two, and though by the end of the fit it had slowed considerably, I could hear some muffled crying coming from up front. I admit I did feel sorry for the poor kid at that point! But I didn't really feel sleepy anymore. I was just too anxious to exit the plane and finally be allowed to get out of my seat and stretch my legs. I held my breath as the airplane touched ground, and practically bounced out of my seat as soon as my neighbour got up to leave.

I had the luxury of glancing briefly outside, for a fleeting second, through the gap between the airplane and the maw of the dubious looking plastic-and-metal makeshift hallway they use to get passengers into the airport's intestinal recesses of waiting rooms and corridors. The rising sun shone with a light that was bright and elegiac, the air seeming crisp and fresh enough to eat, and for that one second, I wished the gap were large enough for me to squeeze through it and escape into the waiting dawn.

I couldn't, and so, I obediently made my way not out into the sun, but into the false, glaring brightness of a million halogen lights.

And this is where I am, in Zurich's airport. The time is precisely 7:04 am, God knows what time zone, Swiss time. I'm sitting here, stuck for four hours while I await my connecting flight to Manchester, England. I know I sound as though I don't like airports, but that isn't the truth. In fact, I could hardly wait to step off the plane a million years, or more likely a few minutes, ago. I'd just spent the last eight hours in a cramped economy seat aboard and Airbus plane, and my legs were practically crying out for some exercise. Matters were not helped by the fact that I had been seated next to an obese Indian woman who took up all of her seat and half of mine. Everyone knows how primal territorial feelings resurface unbidden when you are confined in a small space surrounded by strangers; every square inch of space becomes contention ground crucial to your well-being. This lady was definitely impinging on my personal space; she must have been about seventy-five years old, and she irritated the hell out of me.

Understandably, after an eight hour ride with Indian Lady and Sneezing Kid, my first thought as I stumbled off the plane with a hoard of other bleary eyed zombies was "God I want a fag". Luckily, I had in my carry-on bag about half a pack of DuMauriers, left over from my trip to Canada, out of which I planned to get maximum enjoyment... as soon as I found a smoking section.

I wove my way through the crowd to get where I'm now sitting, down through a maze of passages, up and down what felt like dozens of escalators. I purposefully clomped down the automated runways, constructed for the benefit of the lazy and the handicapped, passing tired passengers and nearly running over a couple of confused old ladies who were just standing there, looking around them in confusion as if they'd just disembarked on an alien planet. Though I'm usually excessively careful not to bump into people and usually apologize almost religiously, I didn't pay any particular attention to anyone as I pushed past them. I was that disgruntled.

I feel a twinge of guilt about it now - I can just see one elderly woman turning to the other, saying, "Gee, Wilma, them natives ain't too friendly in this corner of the universe, are they? Look at that weird specimen that just pushed past us!" and the other one, frightened, answering, "Bless my dentures, Lucille, you're right! I just hope there aren't too many other hostile ones over here!" And then, I smile wryly. My mother's guilt-inducing attempts to instil her belief in chronic politeness to strangers in me have apparently succeeded.

My mood was lifted as soon as I found the minuscule lounge I'd been seeking, a smoky oasis above which a milky haze lingers like smog. Here, people are welcome to destroy their lungs to their diseased hearts' content, away from the more conscious denizens. The area is considerately labelled "Raucherzone". The word sounded dirty to my foreign ear, as if it designated a place provided for cockroaches to meet up and huddle together in order to breed in the musty corners. Perhaps that was the point, but it really didn't bother me at that moment.

I promptly made my way over and sat down on a bench. There is a row of them, spread out in a "U" shape, where exactly a dozen people can fit. Every two or three seats, there is a small ledge and a built-in ashtray. I nestled into a seat near in the U's left corner, laying my coat and too-heavy carry-on bag on the ledge to my right, breathing a sigh of relief and feeling suddenly about a thousand kilograms lighter.

And now, after all this, I happily rummage in my bag until I find what I'm looking for, a small rectangular red box on which there is a glaring white rectangle with bold black text informing me that "La fumée du tabac cause chez les non-fumeurs des maladies pulmonaires mortelles". It's very nice of Santé Canada to tell me so, but there are no holier-than-thou born again non-smokers around - the crowd here is laid back, friendly, and sporadically coughing as they each busily smoke their own brand of internationally diverse cigarettes. Besides, since when have Canadians been that health conscious, anyway? They go skiing, regularly elect Jean Chrétien as their political leader, and eat things like 'poutine'. All of these are probably just as dangerous to their health and well-being, in my (obviously) completely objective and impartial view.

Thinking about this, I pull one of my own out and light it with a match. Tension seems to melt away as soon as I inhale that first drag. They say nicotine is actually a stimulant, but for some reason, having one always relaxes me. I sit back in my seat, feeling welcome heat down in my lungs, and resist a sudden urge to close my eyes.

Drag after drag, my spirits lift. There's an elderly Asian man in the U's opposite corner who's giving me the eye, but I placidly ignore him, my eyes lazing about the room, taking in the harried travellers rushing up and down the nearby escalators, the wailing children dragged away by their tired mothers, people hurriedly walking in and out of the nearby toilets. Sitting there, I feel as though I'm in a different world, a small excluded corner where it's okay to kick back and relax, to escape from the dreary reality of plane travel and the bowels of the airport, to momentarily forget I haven't slept the night before. I feel invisible, outside of it all. It's fantastic.

A bloke sits down in the seat adjacent to mine in the U. I look at him out of the corner of my eye. There's no mistaking where he's from; everything about him positively screams, "I'm American!" Starting with his "Penn State" T-shirt and Tommy Hillfigger jeans. He is big and tall, long legged and broad shouldered, all strong chin, lush lips and honest blue eyes. His thick mop of hair is a sandy colour, tousled and unruly, though pretty much everyone looks unkempt after several hours on a plane. I resist the urge to run a hand through my own chin length brown waves, knowing my hair probably looks awful.

I decide that the American looks like a nice guy. I stub out my cigarette and smile at him. He smiles back. I reach into my pack for another fag, get it out, and before I have time to dig out my matchbook, his hand rushes out at me. I reflexively recoil, startled and bewildered that this friendly looking young man would want to punch me in the face for no apparent reason. Then, I see he is actually holding out a lighter, and feel silly. I laugh lightly at myself, leaning back towards him, making use of the flame he's considerately providing.

My second cigarette lit, I thank him and smile again. He says, "you're welcome" in a fairly broad southern accent which I immediately decide I find charming. He lights his own cigarette (wouldn't you know it, a Marlboro Light), and leans back in his seat, inhaling deeply.

Then, instead of simply blowing the smoke out, his features suddenly contort. I don't even have time to hold my breath before he sneezes twice, sharply ushering out dodgy clouds of smoke, two fairly quiet, pleasant "heh-ckshuh" sounds that seem a bit small for a bloke his size.

I bless him, but he's not really paying attention. He holds still for about five seconds, waiting, and finally lets out a third sneeze, a bit more forceful than the last two, a throaty "eh-shuh".

"Bless you," I say again. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, Thanks. Sorry 'bout that - My sinuses are shot to hell after that flight! I always sneeze for hours when I take a plane. It's the air pressure thing not agreeing with me or something; it's really annoying."

I resist the urge to smile as I hear him admitting to this, and concentrate on his voice instead. His tone is low and pleasant, his delivery warm and slow, like honey swirling downwards off a spoon, and it perfectly fits my (admittedly stereotypical) idea of how Southerners speak in the United States. Also, he has a very sexy sneeze.

"Funny that; there was someone on the plane I just got off that had the exact same problem," I say, trying to keep my tone neutral as I think of the child who kept me from sleeping on the way here. I pause before adding, pointing to his cigarette, "So you're trying to finish yourself off here then, yeah?"

"You could say that," he muses, and gives me another open, sunny smile. "Brian."

I'm so tired that it actually takes me a second to figure out he isn't calling me Brian. I really need to wake up.

"Hi. I'm Lea," And then, hoping I don't sound like I'm making fun of him, I add "Pleased to meet you."

He takes a thoughtful inhalation from his cigarette, before unexpectedly bringing a hand up to his straight nose to partially stifle a fourth sneeze so that it emerges as a soft "heh-emphh!" After that, Brian laughs lightly, exclaiming, "Wow! Would you believe that actually made my ears pop?"

The simplicity of this friendly comment gets me laughing in turn. He really is quite attractive, and there is a refreshing openness about him that makes me like him straight away. I don't even wonder about why we started talking; there's something about airports, perhaps their inherent loneliness, that makes people unusually friendly. This effect is enhanced by the fact that we're in a smoking area; anyone who's ever frequented one will tell you these are excellent places for striking up conversations with strangers. I have no proof, but I'm convinced many romances have originated in smoking areas all around the world. And so, for both of these reasons, or maybe just because some things are meant to happen, Brian and I start actively talking.

I ask him where he's coming from, and he says "Arizona", naming a city I've never heard of before and giving his T-shirt the lie. He tells me he was down there visiting his folks for the holidays, that he saw his three brothers and older sister whom he'd sorely missed when he was over at Penn State (we both glanced down at his T-shirt simultaneously), and that now he's going on a student exchange to Paris. He pronounces it "Pah-ree", and this makes me wince. I love accents (they are so sexy!), but certain words, like "Pah-ree", always make me cringe. This I wish Anglophones would just pronounce it a way that comes more naturally to them, like "Pah-riss" or something. I've always thought it sounded less pretentious, but Brian continues on unaware, telling me about his flight.

"I've just been through the plain ride from hell. I was sitting next to this old guy, he must have been around sixty, and he was really huge!"

"Strange coincidence - my seatmate was an old Indian woman, and she must have weighed in at about 150 kilograms. She took up all of her seat and half of mine!"

"Tell me about it," Brian groans, "I think the guy next to me took up three quarters of mine, and I'm bigger than you are to start with. There should be a law about fat people on airplanes - if they take up two seats, then they should reserve two, you know?"


I wait for Brian to continue his rant against fat people, but instead, he just gets a weird look on his face again, turns away briskly, and buries his nose in the crook his arm.

"Huh-ckshuh! Cshuuh!..."

His cigarette wavers as he sneezes, his fingers contracting spasmodically around it, but it doesn't fall. I smile. They really are very cute sneezes.

"Bless you."

"Thanks. Anyway, this man, not only was he fat, but he also smelled."

I raise my eyebrows expectantly. "Oh?"

"Yeah. Sorry if this sounds like a bitching session, which I guess it probably is, but he had what I'd call major B.O. I guess maybe most people stink after a while, on a plane, but he really, really did. It seemed to be everywhere, the smell, not helped by the fact that he was practically sitting on top of me." Another pause. "Huh...Cshuh!"

"Bless you. At least, I can't say my lady smelled like anything, thank God."

I smile at him again, but more because of the sneeze than because of what he's saying. I really like the little pause he makes right before his head snaps forward, waiting until the pressure builds into an overwhelming urge. It only takes about a second each time, but it really is delicious. His recovery is always quick, but perhaps he's been sneezing so often he doesn't pay any attention to them anymore.

My eyes scan every inch of his face when he does it, taking in his flaring nostrils, his blue eyes squinting shut, the expectant pursing of his lush lips. Even if he weren't sneezing, I'd probably find him attractive if I passed him on the street. I suddenly wonder what it would be like to kiss him, to have him hug me, to run my fingers through his tousled sandy hair.

"Yeah, good for you! But that wasn't the only thing that bugged me. I'm a pacifist, right, against the death penalty and everything, but for the man sitting next to me, I would have made an exception. As if the bulk and the smell weren't enough, he was a Diet Coke addict."

"And that's bad?" I inquire.

"Not in itself, it's not, but he drank can after can, and then insisted on putting his empty cans and glasses on my folding table."

"Ah, territorial feelings," I smirk.

"Heh-ckshoo!... Oh, too right! But that wasn't all. See, he kept drinking loads, so that meant he had to ... tuh-... Ckshuh!... Sorry." Brian pauses, sniffs, takes a drag on his cigarette, and goes on. "Drinking excessive amounts of Coke had two direct effects on the guy. For one thing, every five minutes more or less - and I'm not exaggerating - he let out these massive stinking burps that made the entire aircraft tremble."

"And of course, half the passengers turned around to look at you, right?"

"Exactly," he nods, and then sneezes again, another soft "cshuh!"

I decide not to bless him any more, since he'll obviously be doing a lot of sneezing. I'd better just relax and enjoy. Not only am I highly amused by his discourse, but his adorable sneezes are slowly but surely getting the better of me. As I listen to him talk, his strong jaw flexing as he drawls the words out, his blue eyes awake and alight, I fall a little bit in love with him. Or perhaps, more accurately, in lust; his sneezing is causing an upsurge of arousal in me. It probably wouldn't be thus if his sinuses weren't, as he put it, "shot to hell", but seeing as they are and that he's a good looking bloke who's peppering his conversation with sneezes...

"So there's that, but also, drinking all that Diet Coke meant that he got up to pee every fifteen minutes. I had to get out of my seat while he oozed and shuffled out of his, disturbing not only me but also the people in front of us because he needed to clutch at their headrests to get out. I didn't really know these people, but by the end of the flight, we were very much united in hatred of this man."

"Sounds like a real nightmare!" I interject, and then pause while Brian winds up for another sneeze.

It's a double, it turns out, and this time, he brings his left hand up to stifle them so that they come out almost silently. I wonder if I should tell him not to do that, that they sound so nice to my ears that it's almost cruel to deprive me of them. I almost do, but then hold back, wondering whether this would sound just a little bit too weird.

"What I want to know, though, was whether your guy was talkative," I continue. "Because my seatmate was. She insisted on talking to me even though I was holding an open book, had on earphones, and was obviously watching the in-flight movie. You would have thought she'd get the hint when I only answered in monosyllables or shut my eyes for a full three seconds before answering her, but she didn't." I paused, while Brian leaned forward to sneeze again, this time thankfully not stifled. "So really, I was pretty glad when she finally fell asleep and let me be. At least, she wasn't drinking Diet Coke."

"At least! But she does sound annoying, in her own way. I think I'd have gone insane if mine had been talkative in the bargain. At least, he kept quiet. Asides for when he needed the bathroom, that is. And a couple of times, when he asked me if I could please stop sneezing. Like I could..." Another pause, and then, another sneeze, "Huh-esshuh!... Cshuh!... Man!"

I can't resist. "Bless you."

"Thanks. Anyway, I told him no, that it wasn't as if I were doing on purpose or anything like that. Besides, I know it's small of me, but I was sort of glad I was doing something to annoy him back! ... Huh-chsuh!..." He sniffed, and gave me another boyish smile. "I'm really sorry, though. My sinuses-"

"-are shot to hell," I finish for him. "I noticed."

We both laugh.

Then, on the spur of the moment, maybe because I'm tired or maybe just because I know chances are I will never see him again, I decide to tell him my secret. I'm still not exactly sure why I picked Brian, an almost complete stranger, a handsome guy I'd barely met for fifteen minutes and was already feeling inexplicable things for, to divulge one of my most well-kept secrets, something I'd never even considered telling another soul before. And yet, I did.

"You know, it's sad that the man found it so annoying, really."

"No," Brian butts in, still apologetic, "I can understand, it's probably really annoying having someone sat next to you who's sneezing every two minutes... Cshuuh!... Like now..."

"Not really," I shrug, giving him what I hope is a seductive smile, momentarily forgetting I probably look like total and utter shite after my own hellish plane ride. "I actually think it's kind of... sexy. In a way."

"It is?" He frowns lightly, surprised.

I decide to go for it. What have I got to lose? In the worst of cases, he'll get up, leave, and I'll never see him again. It's pretty much bound to happen anyway. Do I really care if the first thing he says to everyone he meets when he gets to "Pah-ree" is "I met this weird chick called Lea at the airport who got turned on by sneezing"?

Ummm... Let me think. No, I don't.

"Yeah, it is," I continue. "Of course, probably not for everyone, but I've always had this thing for sneezing. It's a total turn on for me - it's just very, very sexy."

Brian starts laughing again, but it's open, friendly laughter, and I smile back at him.

"Wow! That is so cool!" he says with what I've decided is by now characteristic enthusiasm. "So, uh, do you think I have a sexy sneeze?"

For some reason, I adopt an over-the-top, horribly bad French accent and bat my eyelashes at him as I answer, some kind of automatic defence mechanism. "Yesss, zat eez a verrrry sexy sneeze you 'ave zere, Bry-ann. Grrrrr!"

He has a silly, goofy grin on his face when he replies, "That is seriously cool. God, you should have been sat next to me on the plane instead of that blimp; you'd have had a field day!"

He lights another Marlboro Light and sits back more comfortably in his seat. Obviously, he doesn't want to go anywhere for a while. I find myself feeling relieved for some reason.

"Well, actually..."

I tell him my own story about the sneezy plane ride I'd just endured, explaining that though I did get my share of sneezing on the way over, like Brian's obese seatmate, it really got on my nerves. He asks me question after question about my fetish, neither embarrassed nor timid, and delivers honest commentary and openly asks for clarifications in a friendly manner every time I reveal another fact about what I find sexy in a sneeze.

Though I'm outwardly relaxed, inside I am reeling; the moment is so surreal! I'd never thought I'd be having this conversation with anyone at all, and never in an airport with a near stranger. The whole thing is made more pleasant by the fact that he keeps letting out occasional sneezes throughout, every time smiling a tad shyly right after. Each time, his eyes scan my face, as if to read the emotional and (most probably) hormonal weather there.

At some point, out of the blue, he shifts in his seat and crosses his long, well-muscled legs. Without thinking, my eyes momentarily stutter down to his crotch and in my mind, a thought flashes by: "Lea, he's doing that because he's got a hard-on, and he's got a hard-on because he thinks our conversation is dead sexy." I'm amazed.

And amused.

I can't help but wonder what 'it' looks like, struggling to make its way into an erect position under the confining layers of Brian's clothes. I purposely keep from smiling as I imagine his genitalia, feeling impossibly naughty. For some reason, the thought of our conversation provoking excitement in him the way his sneezes have in me seems incongruous, almost impossible. I think of Elisa Doolittle exclaiming, "I'm a good girl, I am!" in her horrible cockney, and then really have to fight to keep down the giggles that are threatening to bubble up in my throat.

Didn't I tell you before that I was feeling extremely tired and slightly out of it?

Cutting short my speculations, Brian sneezes again, stifling it. This time, I pluck up the courage tell him he shouldn't do it. "It spoils my fun," I cheekily inform him.

Putting on a solemn face and placing his hand over his heart, he announces, "I'd never thought about it, but as of now, I promise I'll never stifle another sneeze."

This makes me smile. "Well, cheers for that, Brian. At least now, if my next plane crashes, I'll go down knowing I did something good during my brief time on this planet!"

Brian laughs at my small joke, and then looks at me a bit more gravely. "This stuff about sneezing is seriously the most amazing thing anyone's told me all day. No, scratch that, all year, I think!"

"I'm glad," I answer offhandedly, as if this remark didn't provoke any bashfulness on my part.

"No really, thank you. I think it's really great, and thanks for sharing that with me. I had no idea some people found sneezing really exciting. It's just so cool. Really different, but really interesting, too. I'd just never thought about it, really. It's just so totally amazing, and I really feel better about this now."

He's babbling, and I can only sit there and nod, trying not to look too cynical about what I think is perhaps excessive enthusiasm on his part. I try to concentrate on what he's saying, but I'm getting sidetracked by mentally counting the number of times he uses the word 'really'.

"I'm glad," I say again, more softly, suddenly shy.

Something in the tone of our dialogue has changed. I can't exactly put my finger on it, but I'm feeling suddenly awkward. I no longer feel like giggling the way I did not even two minutes ago, when silly, carnal thoughts had been rocketing through my mind. It's almost as if he were expecting me to say or do something, but what?

"Airports are weird," he says then, in a slightly different voice. His delivery is still honeyed and slow, but his tone is deeper. "They're really lonely, aren't they?"

It's a rhetorical question. He doesn't really want me to answer, but I nod and he continues, looking right at me with a blue-eyed intensity I find disconcerting. Now, he sounds a bit shy, providing a very strange contrast with his previous energetic, enthusiastic speech.

"I'm glad we started talking; it's good to know that there are friendly people everywhere. That worried me a bit, for some reason. You know, this is the first time I've ever been outside the States?"

I can't say this admission comes as a surprise. It's written all over his sweet, All-American face. I tell him so, but in a more tactful manner.

"Yeah; I figured I'd take the opportunity and go abroad for a change, discover new corners of the world. I'm really excited about this trip, but also pretty scared. Sort of, I mean. No, wait, maybe just a tiny bit nervous, yeah..."

This immediate erection of a façade of bravado, accompanied by the beginnings of a blush, gets me smiling again. My heart speeds up in a crazy way for no reason other than that I feel he's just revealed something rather intimate about himself, something he too might only usually whisper as his head rests on a pillow, in a room shrouded in protective shadows, next to a long-term lover. Suddenly, the glaring halogen lights above us seem way too bright. Blinding, even.

I believe that Brian probably feels as strange about admitting to this insecurity, his fear of the unknown and of getting lost in it, as I did talking about my unusual love of hearing other people sneeze. I don't know exactly what to say to make him feel better.

Out of nowhere, another sneeze creeps up on him and I watch his face go blank for a second before he leans aside to sneeze freely, another soft "eckshuh!"

I suddenly want to lean over and hug him, as I might do with any of my close friends back in Manchester when we have emotional heart-to-heart talks, but I don't. Call it Traditional British Reserve, Being Inhibited in Social Situations, whatever you like, but I just feel like that might be a bit too forward, even though I've just also shared with him something incredibly intimate, something not even a single one of my own lovers has heard through the years.

I bless him, again, and then remain silent. I'm busy searching for the perfect reply for what he's just told me, something snappy, something that will be upbeat, reassuring, yet not the least bit patronising, when, out of the blue, he drops the bomb.

"Can I kiss you?"

For a moment, we just stare at each other, me looking at him in disbelief and him looking as though he can't believe he just said that out loud. My heart speeds up again. I realize that yes, I do want him to kiss me. Perhaps for the same reasons I told him about my fetish in the first place, I decide to be reckless once more.

It feels like scene that could be taking place in a grade school playground, a boy shyly asking a girl if he can kiss her, and a girl shyly answering, "Okay" before they both gauchely bend towards each other, their noses colliding.

At first, it's a bit awkward; we lean forward and our lips touch, our mouths not quite feeling right against each other. Then, he shifts in his seat, moves his body forward and sneaks the hand that's not holding a cigarette onto the base of my neck in a surprisingly intimate way that feels exactly right. I've always loved it when a man touches my neck as we kiss. Our lips part simultaneously and the kiss becomes open-mouthed, our tongues exploring each other, intertwining in a slow, sensuous dance.

Brian tastes like smoke and mint from a piece of gum I hadn't noticed he'd been chewing. Fleetingly, I wonder what I must taste like, and dearly wish I'd brought along some chewing gum of my own. Then, I banish this intrusive thought and concentrate on what we're doing. He really is a wonderful kisser, I think, as I lose myself in the moment.

A million thoughts flow through my head as we keep on kissing, exploring each other with a tenderness reminiscent of the delicacy people employ when they're unwrapping a gift and they don't want to tear the paper. I picture him as I've seen him already dozens of times, his face going blank right before a sneeze, and then the expression he gets when he finally releases it. I picture him in the airplane as he must have been, sneezing over and over as he sat next to an annoyed fat man. Then, the image shifts again, and I imagine him on a bed, sneezing again, at first fully clothed and then not. I begin to imagine what he would look like naked as our tongues continue their warm, moist waltz. Would his body be made of hills of soft, pale flesh across which I would run delicate fingers that would make him shiver? Would he be all hard muscle and sinew, finely toned through hours of intensive workout or whatever else it is that this stranger named Brian does during his spare time? And how would he be in bed; would he be a gentle lover, proceeding as if he had all the time in the world to explore every curve and crevice of my body? Or would he fuck like a volcano, sneezing throughout, rocking us both into nirvana, leaving both of us breathless and amazed at the wild roller coaster ride we'd enjoyed together?

All of these images swirl through my mind as we kiss, and as that kiss turns into a longer one still. Here we are, in this most improbable of situations, in the middle of a crowded airport with people all around, virtually strangers but feeling as though we've somehow managed to create a special bond through revelations on both sides. The moment, in all its blissful improbability, seems to go on forever, until finally, he gently breaks off the kiss.

"Sorry, I've got to- cshuh!... Huh-huh-ecshuh!"

I smile at him as he rubs at his nose, plainly annoyed at its bad timing, and then sit back in my seat. For some reason, the spell is broken. He feels it, too, and in turn reclines.

"Thank you," he says, smiling.

Unlike me, he's no longer shy. I just sit there, breathless and tongue tied, smiling like an idiot, my cheeks feeling as if they're bright red.

From somewhere above us, a droning, mechanical sounding voice wedges through the buzzing bustle of the airport as it has several times before.

"Attention all passengers, flight number 304 to Paris is now ready for boarding. Please report to gate A22 immediately for check-in. Thank you."

The announcement is repeated in German, then in French, as Brian looks at me, suddenly awkward once more. We both understand that this is his flight, but he tells me anyway, stubbing out a cigarette that's already nearly extinguished.

"That's my flight. I uh..."

"You have to go; that's fine mate! I'm here for another two hours at least," I say, hoping my voice is as neutral as I want it to be. Then, for some reason, I add, "I'll be fine."

He doesn't owe me anything, but he still apologizes. "Look, I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to just do that and leave."

He gets up, scratching at his unruly sandy hair, as if unsure about what he ought to do.

I decide to go for irony, another defence mechanism that hides the vulnerability that suddenly surges through me. "Well Brian, we've known each other for a whole hour now. We've kissed, and it was fantastic. I'm afraid this means you have no choice other than to miss your flight, come to Manchester instead of going to Paris, and marry me. I'm sure our offspring will be gorgeous. Do you think we ought to buy a house or just rent a flat?"

I keep my expression completely stony as I say it.

"Do I...?" And then, he gets it, and smiles, shaking his head. "You're really something, you know that? Hey, thanks a lot for everything. Honestly, I'd love to stay if I could, but I really have to go. Tell you what though, I could leave you my email address, and then maybe we could keep in touch..."

"Sure," I say, feeling shy and very demure.

He sits down again, hurriedly digging out a pen and a small slip of paper that looks like some kind of receipt. I wait as he jots something onto it, using the back of his bag to steady the paper. When he's done, he hands it to me, and leans over to kiss me again, briefly. I feel sparks beginning to fly once more, but this time, neither of us gets lost in it.

He breaks it off to get to his feet again. From where I'm sitting, he's towering over me. Leaning down, he spontaneously kisses my forehead, a gesture that feels almost as intimate as his previous kiss, and then whispers, "take care and stay in touch, Lea", softly in my ear.

I close my eyes, and when I open them again, he's gone. I turn around to gaze at his retreating figure, but I can't discern his large form in the throng. I suddenly feel more alone and tired than ever. I wonder whether I imagined it all, but in my palm, I hold evidence to the contrary. The slip of paper is warm, crumpled, and on it I can make out Brian's scrawl.

"He writes like he talks," I think, looking at the sloping letters with lots of space between each. Reading the note, I can almost hear his drawl.

"What an extraordinary meeting - this just can't be 'it'. Please keep in touch.  Love, Brian  --"

I lean back into my seat, exhaling deeply, and rummage through my bag to dig out another fag. I light it and then take a drag, staring at the note, trying to make sense of the inner turmoil I'm experiencing.

This isn't like me; we've only spent a little over an hour together. Why am I feeling so distraught all of a sudden? I think about Fate's mysterious ways, about how sometimes, you wind up in unlikely situations that feel as though they have a greater meaning. I think about Brian, about how I acted with him, about how different things could have been if he hadn't been sneezing, and if we hadn't chosen to speak the words we had. Our encounter could have happened in a million different ways, or even not at all, but it did. Somehow, I have the strangely ominous feeling that I have gotten a glimpse at a future I perhaps wasn't meant to see.

In a twisted parallel universe somewhere, Brian and I meet, share what we did, and decide to keep in touch. In this alternate reality, we exchange through email things that most people never tell each other out loud even though they spend their entire lives together. There, we are free spirits, at liberty to act in any way we choose, to be reckless together. Emails turn into phone calls that cost us both a fortune in long distance bills. We meet again in some not too distant future, and instantly, we have an overwhelming feeling of rightness. We decide that this is an opportunity that can't be missed, that events like this unfold for a reason, and that - however tacky and movie-like it sounds - some things are meant to be. We find a way to keep our strangely intimate connection going, to stay together even though it means severing ties and taking risks. We do this, and never for a moment do we regret it, because what we share together is unique, special, and perfect.

And perhaps this can't only happen in a bizarre parallel universe where we're not scared to act recklessly. Perhaps this glimpse into a possible future is within our reach, if we choose to make it so. Or perhaps I'm just tired and being a delirious romantic, making too much out of a chance meeting a nice guy who happened to be a great kisser.

I take another drag on my cigarette.

The ball is in my court. I think that perhaps I will write to him once I get home. Just to see what happens. Just to see what the future holds in store, if indeed it holds anything at all, for Brian and I.

Sometimes, incredible things don't only happen in twisted parallel universes.