I played it cool. "I'll be a couple of minutes, babe. You just have a seat and read a magazine until I'm done."
Playing the good girl, she nodded and did as she was told.
And soon I was done. I swivelled round. "Let's go," I said. Laura leapt to attention. "I'll be gone a while," I told the blonde at the next desk. "Cover for me."
I didn't wait for an answer. I knew it would be "Yes".
I drank in the vision that stood before me, her lips trembling with anticipation. Her dark eyes glistened like broken glass on a dewy morning, her breath came in sharp, warm gusts, like a thermal inversion breaking up as an autumn storm floods in from the West; her breasts were draped in black, like a sculptor's masterpiece moments before the unveiling.
I took her arm in mine and walked her to the door.
Outside, I knew what she needed and I gave it to her. I threw her up against the wall and kissed her hard. I explored her body like a sailor returned at last from a long voyage revisits his favourite dockside pubs.
We did kiss outside my office door, then started down the hall, arm in arm. Turned a corner and I spotted something between the top of her ear and her scalp.
"What the hell is that?" I asked.
"What?" Laura wondered, genuinedly confused.
I pinched a slender tube, held like a carpenter's pencil nestled twixt flesh and hair. "Is this a cigarette?" I asked, hoping against hope it was a really well-tailored joint.
No such luck.
"Oh my god, I completely forgot about that!"
"It is a fucking cigarette!" I cried, torn between laughter and grief - with a rush of ugly irony coming up fast behind.
Laura admitted as much.
"How long have you been smoking?" I asked, my shock as real as the rising sun.
"A while," she said.
She hesitated, then said, "Since before we went to Sudbury."
Gentle Reader, I was dumbstruck (for a moment, perhaps two). During our first phone-call, after a half-dozen emails between us, Laura had asked if I smoked.
I admitted as much.
"Minus 10 points!" she shouted into my ear. (Though, clearly, my score was high enough she was willing to meet me. The rest, of course, is history-in-the-making.)
Since that time, she has badgered me, begged me, to quit smoking.**
When we went to Sudbury, I'd quit, in large part in hopes of pleasing Laura.
"Since before Sudbury," I whispered, and shook my head, as if that might fling those words like drops of water after a bath. "Since before Sudbury! And you've had the nerve to lecture me about it?!?"
Well hell, Gentle Reader, what could I do?
We went out back and cuddled and kissed, and we both had a fucking cigarette.
Before that - and during. And after - of course, I tried to lecture her, tried to plead with her, to quit now, while she still can. But my soapbox is a matted mound of soaked cardboard and my words, I fear had little effect.
Suddenly, I remember being 17, when I took up the vile weed.
I enjoyed it. Liked the taste (as strange as that may seem) and loved the process. Holding that cylinder, taking in the smoke and (yes!) blowing it out again.
Like Laura, I knew it was bad for me. Had lectured my father*** for years about the dangers of nicotine. But I did it anyway ... And look at me now, in thrall to the most loathsome corporations this side of Haliburton Inc.
Welcome to Cancer Country, baby. "We will [both] go together when we go."
(I love you anyway.)
*"Not technically a liar; you never asked." - Laura
**Well, "badgered" and "begged" are exagerations. My Laura is as far from a nag as a coelocanth is from a giraffe.
***Who's been smoke-free for a couple of decades now - there is yet hope for both of us, my sweet.