I have an insatiable curiosity about kissing people that really a lot of people-kissing has done nothing to dissipate. I kiss people all the time just to find out what it’s like, and because the tension of almost-kissing is one of the most delicious things in the world. The way you both kind of let the conversation drop off and angle your heads in and keep breathing and looking up and looking away and licking your bottom lip, just a little bit. The way you know and yet find yourself thrilled and scared, exhilarated. The way for a few scant moments the world seems to stand poised upon a very crucial precipice, a deciding before and after. But then after is just that, after. In the after, I have the bad habit of getting bored.
What this meager attention span has afforded me is thirteen years of weird first kisses, kisses with boys I never meant to end up kissing in places I never meant to end up kissing them. I do not have a lot of exes, but I do have a lot of stories about those first kisses, the moments in which I went ahead and let I might tip on over into I will.
The first time a boy kissed me we were sitting side by side on a yellow bus, bouncing along Sunset Boulevard on our way home from middle school. He was a year older, a notorious misfit with a shaved head and multiple piercings. (Then just his lip and ears, but later his tongue, his septum, and, briefly, the skin of his wrists.) Our friends hung over the backs of the seats around us, laughing and jeering. It wasn’t sexy or romantic but it felt daring and adventurous, which was almost as good.
After that first school bus foray I kissed a boy on the back of a private bus bound for an ironic fourteenth birthday party at Chuck-E-Cheese’s. We passed fragments of the candy necklace he’d been wearing back and forth with our tongues. I recently re-discovered my journal from that period, and posting my description of the incident would probably violate child pornography laws. Suffice it to say that I found the experience “really, really hot.”
With the advent of high school came lots of drinking and wandering around deer-legged, doe-eyed, stumbling into people’s arms by accident and deciding it was fine to stay there. Once E. and I got really stoned and wrote the first page of an English paper before curling up in his bed together. (He had permissive parents; I think they were actually out of the country at this point.) “You can’t stay tonight,” he said, even as he was reaching for me. “I’m allergic to people, okay.”
That kind of thing suited me fine. I kissed strangers at parties and got texts from them weeks later hey this is Jeremy we made out at the Fonda, who r u? And, even when I didn’t respond, know about anything good tonight?
I wish I could number those experiences for you but I was seventeen and new to vodka, and I do not remember all of their names. I was sober when I kissed Cory, a twenty-four year old roadie for Blink 182 who tried to coax me back to his hotel room even after he found out how old I was, but then there are the blurrier nights: Will I think at an afterprom party, Brian after my prom, Rob at a dance when I visited Yale for the first time. That kind of thing. I kissed Matt at a party where he told me he’d always been in love with me. I think I kissed him mostly to get him to shut up.
In college it was only so much more of the same: a different Matt pulled me onto his lap on a couch at a party and Karl kissed me in his frat house’s backyard at a tiki-themed thing.
N. and I were tipsily doing our homework together freshman year, reading the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus. I was reading aloud to him—“we must acknowledge exactly what it is that we love, so if we love a pot we must say, I love a pot!” I said, or something along those lines.
“I want to kiss you,” he said, so he did. It didn’t occur to me until the next morning that what he meant was that he would not necessarily want to kiss me again.
So I distracted myself: I met Lexy, a senior and the lead singer in a campus-cool band, at a party where I had completely lost my voice. It was winter; a week later, when I could talk again, he walked me home from a different party and invited me up to his dorm room. I was complaining about being cold. He inspected my ears for signs of frostbite, first. That didn’t last either, so there was Nick, who kissed me on his parents’ couch while he watched a movie about vampires. That summer there was Max and in the fall it was Alex once, and then Jim, and Nick again. I kissed Jordan right before Valentine’s Day. That one stuck, for a little while, at least.
And then I fell in love. As you might guess, I resisted it mightily, furiously, until it seemed physically impossible to prolong not kissing him for a second more. It happened that that moment occurred while we were in the upstairs bathroom of a house neither of us owned, covered in Tecnu because we’d gotten into some poison ivy while we were weeding. If there were ever going to be a moment for string quartets and showers of rose petals, that would have been it. Instead we were three feet from a toilet, hands frozen at our sides so that we wouldn’t spread itchy oils onto one another’s faces.
I was right not to want to fall in love with him, and after that relationship (such as it was) ended, I didn’t kiss anyone for a long time.
Eventually there was this one boy in New Orleans, a baseball player nicknamed Sunshine, whose hands were so huge they could cradle my skull easily, the base of his palm at my chin, fingertips rounding the crown of my head. We spent the night dancing in a bar called Gold Mine, where the walls were lined with vintage arcade games, where I lied to a different boy about my name and let him buy me shots. I left with Sunshine, though, and the group of friends that had brought us there. We were too many to fit in the car on the way home, so I lay across everyone’s bodies in the backseat, my head cradled in one of those enormous hands while he murmured to me about how pretty I was, and asked me about my parents, my childhood, the places I’d been before.
I kissed M. in the front seat of his car; we made out like teenagers, parked somewhere in east Los Angeles late at night. I had just turned twenty-three, that night, but we might as well have been 13 all over again. In fact we might have known one another when we were 13 — he went to middle school with friends of mine, and flirted with one of them. She told me about him when we met as high school freshmen. “He’s so cute,” she said, “but he really likes smart girls.”
Ten years later he was still cute, and still into smart girls, and I was still thrilled by newness, the idea that he would change me into a different kind of person, a person I thought I wanted to be. That’s the dumb, obvious magic of first kisses: they promise that your life will change, that you will change along with it.
Or that was the fantasy I was selling myself as a teenager, anyway, that I just needed the right kiss to transform me into a cinematic woman, someone willing and able to be swept off her feet, someone who would look good against a sunset and in someone else’s arms. I might never be that woman. It certainly hasn’t happened yet. I probably won’t stop kissing men anytime soon, though. It’s not like there aren’t other reasons to keep in practice.