"You're incredible."

I smiled as I continued to hug her and felt the warmth of her skin beneath my hands and her body pressed up against mine. "Thanks," I said. "I don't hear that nearly enough."

"You're incredible," she repeated and then paused. "Is that enough?" she asked with a soft voice in my ear.

I still felt playful and traced my hands up her back gently, still very happy to continue the embrace that we shared in her forward living room where people walked around us. "Nope," I said impishly. "It'll never be enough."

"You're incredible times infinity," she said with a small, quiet laugh. "I love you," she said.

For the fraction of a second it took me to process those words, I tried (impotently) to discern the meaning behind them. Does she love me as a friend? Does she really dig how our energies seem so compatible? Does she love the way I stroke her hair and caress her skin? Does she love my sense of humor and intellect? Does she really, really love me, as in... that kind of love?

Do I love her back? Certainly, I care for her and would feel unhappy if she found a reason to be displeased with me. I have always thought of her as little more than a friend, as far as emotions were concerned. But don't think I haven't noticed how sexy she is or how easy it is to be physically familiar with her, even though we haven't done anything naughty yet. I know that I like her hugs, which are different and more sensual than anyone else's I've had in years and years. And I truly, honestly and sincerely DO care for her. But love? As in love-love? Geez, I never really gave it any thought before. Should I start to do so now?

So I said, as I held her in my arms and looked into her eyes, "Thank you. That..." I leaned back while I still held her in my arms. "That... means a hell of a lot to me." I looked deeply into her eyes, unsure of what else I should say or what had just happened between us, if anything. There were so many other factors and people and things involved here.

Then she kissed my cheek softly and I kissed hers and she hugged me close again. This time I held a little more tightly and thoroughly enjoyed each brief second of our closeness. She's a belly dancer, almost ten years my junior, smart as hell, sexy, funny, cautious and decidedly female in all the delicious and fantastic ways a young woman can be utterly female. She smells nice and exudes... something... from every pore of her body and presence. She is intoxicating to hold in my arms, always has been and hopefully always(?) will be. That much I know for certain.

I thought to myself, It's been too long, buddy-boy. That's all. She's just being her warm, friendly self. She trusts and respects you. She's not hitting on you, just being nice because you're so nice to her and the people around you. That's all. She simply appreciates who you are. She's not in love with you. She just... loves you. Agape, not eros. I mean, dude, she can't be in love with you: you smoke and you don't dance and she has her policies about those things! I thought this even while we held our embrace in silence and felt each other breathing. I wanted to ask, to clear up the air about what had just been said. Those words are special words, where I come from, and people don't- I don't!- bandy them about lightly. I wanted clarity and elucidation, understanding. But there wasn't enough time.

I sensed the presence of others on the approach and relaxed my hold on her body as she let go of mine. "It truly was a pleasure to watch you dance tonight," I told her. "Seriously. I can't thank you enough for inviting me to the show. I really, really needed to get out and that was perfect."

She beamed beautifically at me and the compliment. "Thank you! I'm so happy you could come out, too. I'm really glad you were there."

I took a small step back, reached into my pocket and withdrew my cell phone, which is currently out of service. The timer on it read: 11:38 PM. I had made plans to meet a friend at the movie theater at midnight and didn't want to be late. I looked back up at her and smiled weakly. "I'm sorry I have to leave, but I really should go. I hope you have a wonderful time tonight and I hope you get some rest. Lord knows you've earned it. You really worked your ass off tonight."

She smiled demurely and nodded. "I know. Believe me, I know. You go on. I'll call you soon."

I smirked as I made to leave. As I approached the doorway, three other guests for the party entered, right on cue, and breezed past me with barely a nod of acknowledgement. Kids. "No, you won't," I corrected her without a backwards glance. "No one will. Not until I get my cell phone turned back on. But there's always email and Jessica has my address. If you want to get in touch with me, you know how." I turned to flash a smart-assed grin at her and found, much to my surprise, that she was directly behind me, right on my heels. "When Jessica gets back from the store please say goodbye for me."

"I will," she said. And I knew that she would. "Have a good time."

"You, too." She leaned in as I opened the door, as though she wanted to really kiss me this time. But I was already in motion and all I could offer her was a small smile and bright eyes. I could see the surprise on her face. A few weeks ago she'd offered me a kiss for my birthday, which I all-too-happily accepted, but now I was sorta-not giving in to temptation this time. For the first time in probably a long time a guy had actually refused her a kiss goodbye. Make no mistake: I really wanted to double back and kiss her goodbye, but something inside me said that to not kiss her would be better in the long run, that it would impress her more.

And a thought: Why, all of the sudden, are you concerned with impressing her? What the hell is going ON?

The door swung closed behind me and I got into my truck quickly. I decided that I would think about it later. Right then, I had a friend to meet and a movie to go see.

What the hell just happened?