One of the neatest things human beings can do is kiss one another on New Year's Eve. It's loaded, loaded with everything we mean to say before we're gone: fear of the unknown, the longing for what's at hand, or already vanished, already past. The swirling anxiety and utter comfort of it, the holding on for dear life. What the eyes do before the lips meet. How your body gets ready for it, then leaps forever into the forever.

We gave ourselves this one task on New Year's Eve: chronicle some of the century's last kisses, in that tiny moment where time and hearts skip a beat . . .

The Veteran Kiss:

More than Patriotism

At 10:35 p.m., Mimi is certain she won't make it to midnight, but a spin on the dance floor with Ray--nobody can resist his Macarena--warms her up.

Back at the table, Bill says, "Have a drink," and she orders her favorite, a vodka and tonic.

"I feel better," Mimi says.

This news brightens the four guys keeping her company in the General Scott Lounge, where old soldiers go to drink and smoke and recall distant, better days. This is the social hub of the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Northwest Washington, and on New Year's Eve, nobody wanted to see a lovely gal like Mimi fade away. Here the retired male vets outnumber the females 10 to one.

"Kisses? That's a problem," says Mimi Rivkin, girlishly, sounding just like she probably sounded 56 years ago when she joined the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps and found herself surrounded by soldiers vying for her favors.

"I was at headquarters in Calcutta. I was a photo lab technician. There were 300 women and thousands of men. But it wasn't as much fun as it sounds. It was scary." At 21, she had dropped out of college to enlist. Ask why and you've asked a silly question. "Now I don't know if you've heard about this," she says, leaning forward, "but back in the early '40s we had something called patriotism."

Ray Perez, at the table tonight in a blue suit and tie, had that, too, when he went off the starboard ramp and into the tide at Normandy Beach on D-Day. "We lost a third of our battalion of 363 men."

William Sampson had it when he was a Marine squad leader in Korea, "when a mortar came in and wiped out the squad." He sips his whiskey and Coke. "I don't like to talk about it."

He'd rather dance. Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" sends him out on the floor with Mimi, frisky on her feet now. She's not thinking about the recent operation that's been slowing her down--she's remembering those many wonderful nights past in Times Square, when she was a fashion illustrator, before widowhood and old age.

It's nearing midnight. Patsy Cline is singing "Crazy." They're passing out pony bottles of Cook's California Champagne. And as the crowd counts down, here's Bill--stout Bill Sampson, with his full head of white hair slicked straight back--looking puppy-dog expectant.

Mimi chooses him, her golfing buddy. ("Just golfing. Nothing disgusting," she says, eyes sparkling.) They touch lips dutifully for a couple of seconds. Then they push into it. Then they get lost in it. For 10 . . . now 15 . . . now 20 seconds.

Duty, hell. They loved every second of it.

--Richard Leiby

The High-Profile Kiss:

Politics and Passion

Would they or wouldn't they?

For seven years, the marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton has been debated, dissected, psychoanalyzed. What does he want? Why does she stay? As the last minutes of 1999 slipped away, they sat in the glare of spotlights, knowing their midnight kiss--or lack thereof--would end up in history books. True love? Political pandering?

Fame's irony: Those who crave it most grow to hate it with equal passion. The slightest gesture, the smallest nuances are seized upon by strangers as tiny pieces of a puzzle. It can never be just a kiss.

But this hydra-headed relationship has defied all attempts to subdue it. Bill and Hillary Clinton are too complicated, too smart, too battle-scarred to reveal themselves in a New Year's Eve kiss.

Yet, a few minutes before midnight, the president left his seat and stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, delivering a speech broadcast around the world. The crowd grew impatient and turned to face the Washington Monument, waiting for fireworks.

Two heads remained fixed on the president's face: Hillary's and Chelsea's. At the end of his remarks, less than a minute before the new year, the two women made their way to the stage and stood at his side. The countdown began.

"Three, two, one . . ." An exuberant Clinton pumped his arm in the air. Then he turned to his right, gave his wife a quick peck, and drew his daughter into a long, extended hug.

Just when it seemed that tiny kiss proved this marriage dead and cold, the president reached his arm around his wife's shoulder and pulled her close to his side, his face lit with affection and contentment. She looked up at him, relaxed and happy. With their beloved Chelsea at their side, they had made it to the Millennium. Together.

--Roxanne Roberts

The Millennial Kiss:

A Big XOXOXOXOXO to All

From a Raleigh-Durham public chat room on America Online:

Sxymtnhikr: whats the time

HntrFrmHl: less than 2 min

SwtJulie43: kiss me HNTR

Gwyneth521: HAPPY NEW YEARSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!ONE MINUTE TO GO!!!!!!

Gwyneth521: ITS MOVING :o)

HntrFrmHl: the ball has started

ACC UNC: hey i got 12:00, Happy New Year folks

HntrFrmHl: :)(:

Gwyneth521: 35 SEC

SwtJulie43: you are easy

Gwyneth521: 30SEC

Moyorkie: XOXOXOXOXO

Mrs Sweetheart2b: HAPPY NEW YEARS

Gwyneth521: 5

Gwyneth521: 4

Gwyneth521: 3

Gwyneth521: 2

Gwyneth521: 1

Moyorkie: MAY OLD ACQ

Gwyneth521: hAPPY NEW YEARRRRRRR

Moyorkie: HOOOOORAY

SwtJulie43: Happy to you too Hntr

Moyorkie: 2000

Moyorkie: YEAH

Gwyneth521: I didnt lose power !!!!WOOHOOOOOOOOOOO

HntrFrmHl: to you too dear

Mrs Sweetheart2b: me eitherrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

Gwyneth521: ::snoopy dancing::::

LWD15: HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE

Sxymtnhikr: nothing happened yet

BECHTELLAW: omg......everything is gone .....the world has ended

SwtJulie43: now where is my damned kiss

Gwyneth521: kissing screen

HntrFrmHl: :)(:

BECHTELLAW: i see nothing total darkness

Mrs Sweetheart2b: julie {lcub}S BIGKISS

BECHTELLAW: no lights nothing

HntrFrmHl: smooooooooooch!!!!!!

Moyorkie: XOXOOXO

BECHTELLAW: what happened

Mrs Sweetheart2b: mmmmmmuuuuaaaaaaaaaaaaa to all

Mrs Sweetheart2b: now lets all {lcub}S MAKELOVE

HntrFrmHl: BIG KISS TO ALL (cept the guys)

LWD15: XOXOXOXOXO

SwtJulie43: I am screaming and scaring my dogs

--Linton Weeks

The Singles Kiss:

All Alone in a Crowd

There is no cover charge here. They come through the door to the bar in groups of three, or four, or even six. All men. All women. Occasionally a mix. It is a half-hour to midnight, and in Tom Tom, on 18th Street in Adams-Morgan, the prelude toward a kiss has begun. Who is alone, who is with someone, who will settle for a group toast, who will stand there, awkwardly, wondering why the other person didn't make a move?

"Love Shack" plays on the sound system. Along the bar is a row of young men, checking out the women who come through the door. On the first floor, a group of six--three men, three women--talk over the din. There appears to be little chemistry. No touching. No dancing. No lingering looks. With 15 minutes to go, the women extract themselves, head upstairs. People are starting to collect plastic cups of champagne. On the balcony, two young men prepare to toast each other, having long given up on the millennium kiss.

One hopeful young man buys a rose from an ever-present Adams-Morgan wandering flower salesman. He has it sent to a beautiful woman across the room. She smiles, but tells a stranger nearby that her boyfriend--who is here with her tonight--won't be pleased. The young man looks crestfallen.

Five minutes till: In the group of six friends, two have paired off, are touching, a hand on the lower back, an arm around the neck. The others stand, clutching green Jell-O shots with their beers. Midnight strikes.

The pool game stops, briefly. Three men share a group hug, and try to draw a strange woman into their embrace. She demurs. The two guys on the balcony scream to people in the street, waving their bottles.

In the little group, a brief toast. A few awkward glances.

Then the kiss--long, slow, achingly familiar in a room now filled with short, furtive, awkward glances. Her name is Sharon Creeley. His is Doug Eliason. They have been dating for years. They live together in Takoma Park. And as their friends stand by, plastic cups clutched in their hands, the kiss goes on and on.

--Jennifer Frey

The Faltering Kiss:

Crushes and Blushes

You're a teenager at a New Year's Eve party and you see this boy you sort of like sidling over to you. Your girlfriends have told you he wants to kiss you. You kinda want to kiss him. What do you do? What young damsels have done for millennia: You smile and walk away with your friends, casting your big brown eyes backward in a silent promise.

He advances, you retreat. You advance, he looks the other way. The dance continues throughout the night at the Worldgate Sport & Health Club in Herndon. He sees you in the swimming pool. You hope he paddles over. He doesn't.

Your name is Kayla Alexander; you're a tall, red-haired freshman cheerleader at South Lakes High School. His name is Mark Kates; he's a freshman wrestler at South Lakes and has thick, dark hair.

You're there along with your family and about 40 other families who have rented the club to ring in the new century. What better way to do that than to smooch the guy you've had your eye on since that Halloween party? There are all kinds of reasons not to. Maybe you like someone else and he's not there. Maybe there are too many other teenagers around, wishing they would be kissed but figuring they won't be.

Or maybe, like Kayla, your parents are there, all eyes. In fact, they're with the other adults in the lobby-cum-dance-floor. You and more than a dozen other teens are hanging over the balcony above them, bemusedly watching the slightly tipsy scene below.

The countdown starts. You glance at your guy. He glances at you. Then you catch your dad's face looking up from below. Not a chance, babe.

In Times Square, a ball drops. The grown-ups cheer and hug and kiss and you and your buddies throw confetti on them. The party breaks up. You and your gang have moved into a hallway. Your guy and his gang stand a few feet away.

Your mom and dad come to retrieve you. You tell them you've got to tell your friends goodbye.

You think, hey, it's the new century. Within the first decade or so I'll be graduating from college, starting a job, getting married, maybe even beginning a family. It's time to take charge, get on with the new life that beckons. So what do you do?

If you're Kayla, you march over to Mark and plant a kiss on his lips, quick but firm. Then listen to your friends squeal.

--Laura Sessions Stepp

The Good-Time Kiss:

Joy Unfettered

They seemed a sweetly perfect couple--gently swaying to "Auld Lang Syne" in the darkened Columbia Elks Lodge #85 in Northwest Washington. A tight hug, a nuzzled kiss. All the signs of a long, affectionate marriage. And indeed, these two are married.

To other people, it turns out.

Next!

Here's a younger couple. As midnight is rung in (curiously, at 11:50 p.m.--the official Elk timepiece seems to be someone's fast-running Casio), a young man exuberantly lifts up his dance partner, a striking young woman with curls in a knockout black-and-white gown. She giggles in mock horror: "Put me down!" Not quite a kiss, but certainly a spirited and spontaneous New Year's embrace. Close enough. This is the couple I'm looking for.

Tell me your entire love story. Every detail. Tell, tell, tell!

"I've only known him for a week," she says, with a dismissive wave of her hand. He's already off dancing with someone else. "My boyfriend is waiting at home with a bottle of champagne."

This reporter is one barely restrainable step away from wresting the microphone from the deejay and shouting: "Isn't there anybody here not cheating on somebody?!!?"

Whoa. Step back. You gotta understand: This dance isn't about magic-midnight kisses that seal a lifetime pact of whatever. Folks may be filling the sky with fireworks a dozen blocks away on the Mall, but inside this old hall, on this linoleum dance floor, baby, it's human sweat coming off. This is life, ground zero, and life is hard and complicated.

This Elks' New Year's Eve party is a LeDroit Park throw-down, as old-school as it gets. We got shiny suits. We got tinfoil trays full of hog backs and greens, black-eyed peas and spicy rice. Spinning on the turntables are R&B classics, some Al Green, some Aretha. Hey--it's "Booty Call!"

"I know she's got a boyfriend," says the girl-lifter, Vincent Reed. "Hey, I'm all about having a good time. Happy New Year!" Off he boogies, harmless.

As for the girl, lifted, she's waiting for her man to call on the cell phone. His name is Dwayne Hunt. He's 6-foot-4 1/2 and a real gentleman, says Mona Ferguson. She's 33, lives in Landover and reluctantly left him at home tonight, browbeaten by her single girlfriends into coming to the Elks hall. Go ahead, have a good time, said Dwayne. I'll be waiting for you when you're ready to come home. Trust like that builds over a 9 1/2-month relationship.

And probably--a couple of hours after midnight, to be sure--probably Mona and Dwayne do bring in the new year with a kiss. In private. Where we don't see it. Where it matters most.

--Frank Ahrens

The Un-kissed:

Honoring the Heroes

The neighbors in Apt. 102 went out, and so there was Sarah Foster-Gross, 15, on the job, on New Year's Eve, precisely at 8:30. "There's chips, there's cheese, there's Chee-tos," said little Isabel's mother, Ellen, getting her coat on. "Here's the cell phone number. And, look, I got you a flashlight, just in case." Then, Isabel's dad, John, gave Sarah another rundown on the three remote controls for the stereo-television system. "She'll go right to bed," Ellen said of the 2-year-old, and she was right--two stories and the kid's nodded off, the angel routine, all was quiet.

This last bit is dedicated to the babysitters.

We can never know how many teenage girls greeted the 21st century from the lonely sofas of anywhere, and weren't kissed. Sarah's best friends were out party-hopping around Tenleytown and Chevy Chase.

Sarah--a small, lovely girl in jeans, a silver top and a black sweater, with her long, dark hair pulled back in an imperfectly casual knot--said she didn't mind missing out on the biggest night of the year. Perhaps when you are 15, there are so many biggest-nights-of-the-year stretched ahead of you. No remorse, no midnight romance, but there is this: $5 an hour. ("Actually, I always get a little more from them," she says. "I know this one girl who is baby-sitting for a bunch of lawyers and she's getting, like, $300 or $400.")

She channel-surfed into the future. Cable TV is a treat for the 10th-grader from Washington Waldorf School. Another good thing about baby-sitting: Pepsi. (Apparently this is the only occasion she gets to drink soda. And eat chips.)

Once upon a time, Sarah lived in Swaziland, in Africa, because her father worked for the foreign service. She recalled horseback riding and her best friend, Bongi, who is a princess. ("But everyone's a princess in Swaziland. The king has so many wives.") If she could be anywhere, she'd have been there.

The phone rang, about 11:45. It was her 22-year-old brother, Joaquin, calling from the building lobby. He brought her empanadas, and as midnight got closer, they opened more Pepsis, switched to MTV. He persuaded her to help him oil his burgeoning dreadlocks, and she did. Sister and brother watched Times Square and Carson Daly and the barely dressed minions go ape, but it looked small on TV. The baby slept through. Faintly, outside, there was screaming and distant fireworks. Sarah had about an hour and a half to go.

--Hank Stuever