I just finished reading Mary Karr’s memoir, Cherry. The book (in Karr’s trademark gorgeous prose) chronicles the years between The Liar’s Club (reflections on her dysfunctional but uniquely loving family) and Lit (her struggle with alcoholism/old demons). The first half of Cherry zeroes in on the author’s awakening sexuality, a la the teenage years. Karr set out to address this sensitive subject in a way that would be neither titillating for the reader nor evocative of Nabakov’s Lolita. To my sensibilities, she succeeds. Employing mostly second-person narration, Karr makes the reader complicit. It’s not only the young Karr who is kissed by dreamboat John Cleary, it’s “you.”
Reading Cherry put me in mind (to use Karr’s Texan phraseology) of kissing. So, in light of time constraints, a short homage to Karr and to four kisses (with which I’ll make you, reader, complicit).
You are eleven and infatuated with a boy named Bobby Mally, a sandy-blond too shy to be infatuated back. His best friend is Andy, Andy whose dad looks like John Denver. (Because of the look-alike thing, you and your friend, Tish, share a mild crush on Andy’s dad — who you recall now with resurfacing curiosity, calculating your age difference, realizing that ten years later you could have more-enjoyably kissed him instead of Bobby). You and Bobby have set a date and time to kiss. Actually, Andy and Tish set it but so what. You’re in 6th grade and count down the days — tick marks on the back of your Pee-Chee folder — until a Friday finds you and Bobby and Andy and Tish descending the schoolbus’s steps (you, with a flutter in your chest that hasn’t yet found its way further south). It’s a spring day. (Of this you’re fairly sure now because it’s sunny, warm not hot, the asphalt not yet pocked with shiny, melted tar.) This is to be your first kiss beyond random pecks a la Truth or Dare … and you’ve imagined it for a week. Though you’ve heard of “frenching,” the idea of a boy’s tongue in your mouth is about as appealing as eating a slug … and you know Bobby enough to know he won’t try it. It’s the meeting of lips, soft and chaste, that has played out via your imagination as you’ve sat near Bobby in the cafeteria, him smelling of bologna and mustard. A block from the bus stop, you reach Andy’s backyard, his dad conveniently at work. This is the place, the time. You don’t remember, now searching your memory’s film, the minutes before the kiss except that Bobby won’t look you in the eye and seems, instead, to study his Adidas. When the big moment comes he curls his lips over his upper and lower teeth … so your lips don’t meet his lips at all. Instead, you wind up kissing the cleft beneath his nose, the space above his chin, which he’s pulled tight, sucked in hard against his teeth. Like kissing a fleshy turtle. The big event lasts all of one second and leaves your, if not unsatisfied, perplexed.
You are twelve, almost 13, and in love. Not “puppy love” but the real deal. You can say this, even 38 years later, with certainty because time has proven it. You met him in first grade. He was gone for awhile (changed schools) but moved to your neighborhood (and back to your school) a year ago, 1975. His hair is longish, auburn, curly – rock-star hair, you think. He is lean, the muscles in his shoulders and arms are long and move beneath his skin when he grips his BMX bicycle’s brake. When you walk home from the bus stop together, he tells you funny stories in an Italian accent he borrows from his dad. In June he asks you to “go steady” while everyone in your neighborhood watches from across the street. When he does this, he gives you a necklace he made with your named spelled out — etched in black onto small white beads — and you are his. And now it’s July and you’re about to go on vacation with your family, Lord, two weeks away from him seems impossible. You and he are behind the Slater’s garage, hiding. Hiding because you’re playing Kick The Can with the rest of the neighborhood kids and because Kick The Can is a good enough excuse to be alone together, hidden. It’s there, behind the garage, that he tells you he loves you and you say it back. It’s there that you feel his close breath, catch a change in the way he looks at you, witness — for the first time — the fusion of intensity and vulnerability you didn’t know existed in a boy. You are awed by this, moved nearly to tears, weakened and emboldened by it. You know the kiss is coming, soften toward it, watch in slow-motion as his lips move toward yours. You keep your eyes open because you want to see everything (which is, maybe, why the memory is still so vivid). Also, Jasmine must have been in bloom because if you catch a whiff of it now, you’re taken back, leaning against the wall of Slater’s garage. You’re sure, now, that you imagined this kiss a hundred times before it happened but you don’t remember the imagining. Maybe because the reality was so much better. He doesn’t try the “frenching” thing (won’t for another year or so) and you’re glad. It’s just fine the way it is. Soft and warm and close and languid and thrilling and new and so much more than enough for a suburban tomboy.
You are 23. He is double that only you don’t know it because he looks younger and, frankly, you never asked. You have worked with him, day in and day out, at a large corporation where you are a secretary and he, a manager. You’ve become friends because he makes you laugh and (though you don’t know this is the reason) you make him feel young. He is black and you are white. This shouldn’t matter but, given the times and certain geographies, your friendship is frowned upon by some and anything more than friendship would be taboo … which, of course, endows the notion with gravity — more pull from him than you at first, but that will change. Early on, when you orbit him, you do so blithely. You appreciate his help with Algebra. You’re flattered when he sends flowers to your desk for no particular reason. When he wants to cook you dinner, you say no thank you but then, after he tells you he’s fallen in love with you, you say okay. You go to his house for dinner because you’re falling in love with him, too, or maybe because you don’t want to hurt his feelings or maybe because you like being loved by an older man the way girls with daddy-issues sometimes do. Probably all three. Once there, you wonder if you should stay or leave. You wonder if there’s some workable blend of both . You wonder. He talks about Paris and art and music and society’s ills … and this makes him, in your eyes, wise as an oracle because guys your age talk mostly about beer and trucks. Still, you wonder. He tells you he’s never felt this way before. You wonder. His lips brush your cheek. You wonder. He calls you baby. You wonder … but then he takes you firm up in his arms and he kisses you and his kiss is a different thing altogether. It takes you and all of your thinking into it, pulls the whole of you like a tide … until you’re upside-down and sideways and head-over-feet, tumbling and adrift and malleable like so much seaweed. In his kiss, you are exposed and safer than you ever have been. You you are lost and found and falling and caught and, willingly, done for.
You are nearing 26, washed up on the shore. He is 27, churned out by other seas. But, in each others’ eyes, you are (both) somehow new. Radiant, even. You are wary of love now, so when he uses the word you figure he’s confused or infatuated or naive. Still, there’s something in the way he looks at you, into your eyes deep and long and searching. Or maybe it’s the way he lets you look into his … like he’s opened holy gates to something he’s shown nobody else … so you feel privileged. He reads you his poems, takes you to brunch on Mother’s Day when everyone else pretends to forget, beams when he holds your hand. And you? You aren’t ready and you tell him this and he says he will wait. He will wait and so will you, though you will notice the way his back splays out like a cobra’s (years of swimming), the way his brownish, sun-bleached hair brushes the tops of his bare shoulders when he plays volleyball. Together, you reclaim pieces of yourselves that you’d believed gone. You hike the mountains, the seashores. You paint together on large sheets of watercolour paper which, later, will hang in a gallery. Slowly, you let yourself love again. And, when he kisses you the first time, it’s at your doorstep, his lips parted just slightly, soft, a moment of lingering, then a brush of his hand on your hair before he turns to go. And you remember it now, though it was neither passionate nor tepid, because its tenderness rendered you, somehow, innocent. Maybe even reborn. You remember it, too, because it was the beginning of a kiss that has lasted, so far, twenty-some-odd years. A kiss that (some months after the doorstep) will find you lying on his bed, fully-clothed, for hours — still kissing, nothing more — until the windows are steamed and you taste (with gratitude) the salt of his sweat. This years- long kiss that will ebb, flow, expand, contract, fall and rise again. This kiss you will rest in. And he, giver of this kiss, will learn to employ it to slow your mock-speed mind. He will see you mid-bill-paying or post-parental-caretaking or pre-job-interviewing — the crease between your brows fretting itself into a crevasse — and he will kiss you. A peck, you think, as you shift, begin turning back to your worry du jour. But he will linger there at your lips. He will linger until you realize he ain’t goin’ nowhere … and your shoulders will fall down from around your neck. And you will tell yourself I’m here now. Here and loved longer, more tenaciously than I dared imagined I would be. Here, loving back this man whose lips I know as well as my own.