“And what is a kiss, specifically? A pledge properly sealed, a promise seasoned to taste, a vow stamped with the immediacy of a lip, a rosy circle drawn around the verb ‘to love.’ A kiss is a message too intimate for the ear, infinity captured in the bee’s brief visit to a flower, secular communication with an aftertaste of heaven, the pulse rising from the heart to utter its name on a lover’s lip: ‘Forever.'” – Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Act 3
It was a first kiss much like many other first things – awkward and tinged with an electric guilt that always accompanied the first taste from a forbidden apple. Everyone was making out – – at least this was the scouting report from the locker room, a pubescent hot stove network of chronic adolescent liars. If I was to believe my friends wrapped in their microscopic dish rag gym towels, shivering in the cold morning air that coursed through the frosted gymnasium windows, everyone had gotten to first base – Everyone with the exception of me.
Seventh grade was a treacherous strait of hormone infested waters set against a skyline of uneven boys and girls of every imaginable height. Each kid was a building under construction – – from awkward skyscrapers to stunted single story apartments. Your body was in the first act of some Kafkaesque transformation and your mind was becoming ready and cautiously willing to explore the perfumed corners of a universe that suddenly seemed more complex than just one year before. In retrospect, middle school girls were much more predatory than their more slowly evolving opposites. Girls matured faster than boys and had a greater curiosity for the strange hieroglyphics of love. These budding drama queens were hardly advanced in the sending and receiving of the signals of attraction. It was more that they had become in love with the idea of being in love and required a supporting actor to experiment with life’s passion play. Boys became willing and fumbling accomplices but were ill equipped to navigate the contradictions of romance. Inevitably, their inability to comprehend the opposite sex fated most nascent relationships to life spans measured in hours and days. At first, I lied like all the rest of them, boasting of a torrid affair with a thirty year old school teacher in Arizona while on vacation with my family at the Grand Canyon. Upon rigorous interrogation from a cerebral cynic named David Schuck, my story shifted and became even more colorful. Several boys “oohed” and “aahed” but David remained tortured and unconvinced, leering at me with the squinting eyes of a conflicted moral inquisitor.
My preoccupation with kissing was in fact, more deeply rooted in an early childhood spent watching classic movies with my mother who could never convince my father to watch any film that did not end with someone being shot with a 44 magnum. We would hoist a large basket of laundry into the den and fold clothes while Bogie clutched Bacall and Gable fell for Lombard. There was the frozen fated kiss of Lara and Zhivago and the lushly, seductive lips of Rita Hayworth corrupting a naïve Tyrone Power in “Blood and Sand”. Yet, the best kiss – the greatest kiss of all time, was between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in The Sun”. That lip lock was a union of two magnificent forces of nature, the fated kiss of two young immortals – irresistibly drawn to one another in a timeless American tragedy that would conspire to keep them apart. Their chemistry was extraordinary and palpable enough that even a kid could understand how passion could penetrate the soul. While most boys my age hid their eyes at such a union with a muffled groan, I tilted my head while my mouth slowly moved mimicking the kiss. I was transfixed. All I knew is I needed to be ready when my Elizabeth Taylor came along.
I practiced on the full-length mirror in my bedroom until my little brother walked in on me and accused me of being a Homo Sapien. I was highly offended by the allegation and punched him in the stomach. My burst of masculinity seemed to dissuade him from casting furthering aspersions on my manhood. But I needed to practice – resorting to kissing my arm until my mother asked me why I had so many strange bruises along my forearm. “They almost look like… hickies” I heard her tell my father.
Yet the more I analyzed the actual art of kissing, the more disgusting it seemed. It involved opening your mouth very wide, like a basking shark and then attaching yourself to her mouth which was also open wide. One of you would have a strained neck by the end of the process but it was necessary to attach your mouths and hold your breath for as long as possible until one of you swooned, passed out or just pulled away saying, “ no, this is all wrong”. There were even more disturbing rumors of Kissing 2.0 which involved wandering tongues. For someone like me with a sensitive gag reflex, an unwelcome tongue could precipitate an apocalyptic disaster. It was all so complicated and troubling. Yet, with each gym class, my biological clock was ticking louder than an aging debutante. I was convinced that everyone had “ made out”. Even Jim Emmett, the lowest form of amoeba on the seventh grade social food chain and master of the habitual lie, purported some type of liaison with the check out girl at the Market Basket grocery store.
It was Valentine’s Day, a day I had come to loathe. On this day, Valentines with candied Necco hearts were delivered from secret admirers and romantic interests. To raise money, service clubs would sell the Valentines with messages like “ Be Mine” or “Love You”. A “popular” person could receive scores of Valentines or perhaps like Charlie Brown some might be left with a single Valentine from their math tutor Mrs. Hearn.
My secret valentine arrived after fifth period social studies. All it said was, “ Kiss Me”. I looked around the room, hoping that by some miracle it had been sent to me by the statuesque Scandanavian goddess, Kerry Kostlan. Our eyes met but her gaze was filled with only her normal contempt. Brad Wetmore leaned over and whispered, “I know who sent you that Valentine. Meet me after school.” Instead of excitement, panic immediately set in. I glanced at the clock and it was already 2:00pm. I had left my emergency osculation kit at home – Spearmint Binaca and English Leather cologne. At 3PM, I would most likely meet “her” and perhaps she would want her kiss. This was not going according to plan. Perhaps, my rite of passage could wait a tad longer.
As the bell sounded, I raced to my locker and on toward the bike racks where I would flee home on my ten speed. As I turned the corner, I saw Bradley. He motioned for me to come over to where he was half hidden in a shadowed passageway between the gymnasium and woodshop. Behind him was his girlfriend, Kolynn and a shy girl with long tangled blond hair. It was Tracy, Kolynn’s best friend. Minutes later, we were playing truth or dare and Kolynn dared me to kiss her best friend. The moment was at hand. It was not Elizabeth Taylor on the balcony of a Newport Rhode Island mansion. It was a kind-eyed, chestnut-maned girl with a mouthful of steel and a horse-faced overbite. I moved toward her and she smiled the nervous half grin of a willing neophyte. I tilted my head and squinted my eyes opening my mouth – wide, very wide. Through the haze of my eye slits I could discern total amusement as her eyes laughed with compassion. She moved over and grabbed my chin, closing my mouth awith the pinch of her thumb and forefinger, and pressed her lips onto mine. My chest filled with tiger-tailed butterflies while my knees yielded to the electricity. Her mouth was warm and soft like dough frosted with cherry lip-gloss. I held my breath and waited. I was about to pass out as I no one had informed me that a man was allowed to breathe out of his nose while making out. She thankfully moved away, floating off and smiling. “See you later” she giggled and whispered something to Kolynn, who laughed.
Later as Bradley and I rode our bikes home, I was triumphant. I tried to be cool but I could not contain my enthusiasm. I just wanted to talk. In fact, I was talking so much, I did not notice that Bradley was no longer behind me, and had turned off a block before to go home. “So what did she say,“ I said, as I turned around to an empty street. I did not see Bradley nor the parked car but I do remember very distinctly the metallic crash and a flash of excruciating pain in my hand. I looked down and my finger was bent back to my hand – obviously dislocated. There was a brutal shock of electricity up my arm as I shook my hand and suddenly felt the joint pop back into its socket.
The hand was already swelling and my bike was a mess. As these were the days before helicopter parents and cell phones, I walked the ruined bike home, cupping my hand to my chest. But all I could think about was that kiss. I had finally made it to first base and joined Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable and Bogart.
In fact, I was pretty sure not even Bogie had ever held his breath as long as I held mine with Tracy. Must be all that exercise in gym class.