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Chapter One

For the duration of the flight, I had forgotten about her. More powerful forces having intervened, our love affair had ended, and I had accepted it as a fait accompli. By some miracle, or perhaps by some pleasing of the gods I had inadvertently pulled off, I had been rewarded with a release from my preoccupation with her, and I had fully intended to use this unshackling of my mind to mark in my memory this singular, transitional event, this luminous event, gift wrapped in silver sky, silver aircraft, and approaching silver landscape below.
      Can you imagine the chill of foreboding that charged through me when, with the last, loud surge of the engines of the landing jet, the familiar, but this time, phantom fingers of Gabriella fondled my elbow in a tremulous dance of spiky tentacles, like a spider teasing its victim? To begin with I don't like airplanes, especially when strapped into one of them as it is coming in for a white-knuckling, breath-sucking, stomach-lurching landing, and then to find the specter of her still fastened to my elbow -- well, it didn't say much for the prospects of my new life sans Gabriella I was chasing -- chasing all of the way to Sydney, Australia.
      Ever masterful of the arm's-length technique when it suited her purposes, several hours before, Gabriella had elegantly and coolly handed me over to the representatives of the airlines of my departing flight like an austere nanny delivering her charge to his teacher on his first day of school. No tears; no embrace; no promises of phone calls or letters had occurred. For the first time in my sixty-month association with her, any lingering misunderstanding as to my place in the pattern of things was made clear. Despite the bittersweet details of those months, details requiring a committed relationship rivaling any in human interchanges, this day of my parting I was only her former employee -- no longer her bodyguard, her nurse, her best friend, the object of her grand passion, for her need of me had ended.
      She did extend herself somewhat, however, for she just as easily could have sent me packing by way of one of her limousines with only the back of the head of its designated driver as my final, human contact with the portion of my life represented by Gabriella. Instead, it was she who drove me to the airport in New Orleans, Louisiana, the city in which we had lived for the last two years. She drove me in her little MG. Often before, during our time there, she drove me in the MG on sightseeing trips -- drove with its top down, when possible, for she loved the feeling of the wind whipping in her long, luxurious hair -- but not this day, for the hair was gone, great clumps of it having been matted in the bristles of her brush, or the fingers of her hands, or, nearly as often, in mine. "Nicky," she one day inquired of me, "do you think I should just shave it all off -- get it over with in one fell- swoop -- or let it go naturally?" And I bundled her against my chest, my fingers combing her peerless hair, long, silky strands of it floating to our feet with each pass of my hand.
      This morning of my leaving, she wore a white turban to camouflage her bald head, and hanging loosely on her withered frame, a blouse and matching trousers: a white ensemble of soft, cool cotton. Even though she knew the disease and the chemo were rendering her nearly unrecognizable to her adoring public, she donned over-sized, dark glasses, saying to me hopefully as we exited her home, "Just in case." It was the last comment she made to me that in any way hinted at our former intimacy.
      In bygone days, she would have exercised one of the trappings of her celebrity -- she would sent me flying in one of her personal jets set off from a remote spot at a private airport -- but this day she wanted to accompany me on the long walk to the appropriate terminal in the public airport -- perhaps to test once more, perhaps for the final time, her station as Gabriella Adams Leland, goddess/actress, super-star, heiress, and arguably one of the world's most beautiful and acclaimed women. But why I continue to assign benign motives to her is beyond me. If I'm honest with myself, her putting me on a commercial flight rather than transporting me in her private jet, was her ultimate kiss-off of me.
      People gawked, and commented among themselves, and even greeted her openly as we passed by. Jostling one another for the best photograph, like vultures gathered for a feast, the perpetually, hovering gaggle of paparazzi was there, but the contingent of bodyguards she had hired kept the beasts at bay, just as I had done until then. I wondered if her fame would follow me to Australia, and if, at a checkout of a grocery store, I would see her ravaged image plastered across the covers of magazines and newspapers. Her steps weak but deliberate, her head unwaveringly facing our final destination, her hand, static, antiseptic, humiliatingly accommodating, its icy fingers touching my elbow, she led me to my position in the waiting area, a place with which she was very familiar, and I, a relative stranger there, knew not at all. New Orleans is, after all, her adopted home city, the turf of her "actual existence" as she calls it. It is, as well, with me in tow, the place she had come to from Columbus, Ohio two years ago to die.
      For the duration of our long, slow walk, nothing transpired between us, no inquiring, sidelong glances, no cloaked and embarrassed, albeit ritual, chitchat, no alms placed at the foot of what I had theretofore deluded myself into believing to be the steadfast monument of our friendship. It was as if the chemo, in staving her cancer, had also been cauterizing her emotions. Where before, across the span of a dining- or gaming-table, or, during our almost wholly uninterrupted and insulated hours together, face-to-face, or side-by-side in her bed, free from the circadian rhythms of good health and its concomitant responsibilities, nothing of what had been for both of us the darkest nights of our souls was evaded or glossed over. Despite my attendant despair, a sacrifice for prolonging her life, was the loss of her emotional attachment to me while she still lived, and as her doctors had recently advised, perhaps would live on. Initially giving her the benefit of the doubt, what I thought to be her temporary severance from me I had likened to regrettable, but unavoidable, damage to civilians during a righteous war.
      What was I thinking anyway -- that this elusive, implausible treasure might actually be mine? Even ravaged by an apocalyptic illness she is singularly beautiful -- more essentially beautiful than ever. Tides rush in to touch the hems of her garments; the moon winks to garner her attention; trees bow to her when she walks in their midsts. She is Evolution's primary event -- Eve reincarnated -- the true Seductress, and I now know, like Eve, Gabriella is extremely dangerous to the status quo. The remnants of a tortuous childhood keep her entranced with chaos, drama -- thus her profession.
      After two years in her employ, she cast her illustrious, gold-flecked eyes in my direction, and like cosmic lasers, they bore holes through my phony armor; they cut me to pieces, spotlighting my Dumbo ears, my Goofy, size fourteen feet; they exposed my eccentricities, my abominable displays of awkwardness. And while she stripped me and skinned me bare, she played my senses with her wiles, conscripted my brain with her words, swallowed my heart with her kisses.
      "Goodbye, Nicholas, and thank you," as slick as silk she said to me. She removed her dark glasses. Her golden gaze locked onto mine, and as if rendered there by the godlike hand of DaVinci, finality drew exquisitely on the perfect line of her brow. Her pithy farewell rudely jolted me to my senses, and confirmed to me what I had long known, but with her for a while had forgotten, "Love Hurts!"
      With a great, heaving sigh, the plane rested, and as I unbuckled my seatbelt, I said to Gabriella in my mind, Remove your talons from me, Gabriella. This Don Quixote is dead. I'm not taking the bullet for you, or anyone, again. I've come to Australia to start a new life as far from you -- as far from my past -- as I can get. All I want are peace, freedom, and lots of Aussie sun. I unfolded my cramped body from the undersized seat and gingerly rose to my feet. As I retrieved my gear from the overhead bin, I felt her cold fingers release my elbow. Through the open door of the plane, the Southern heat coiled through the straps of my sandals, up into my toes, feet, legs, torso, brain -- and I, Nicholas Plato, a child of the Northern heat of Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, began to thaw.

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