I was fifteen, abnormally vague, self-absorbed, and naive — that is to say, much as I am now, only more so. He was seventeen, just released from Juvenile Hall, serving time (he said) for armed robbery. A terribly tall, gaunt young man, with bad skin, an overbite, and a shy, wicked smile. He raced motorcycles, and his greasy Levi’s jacket smelled of motor oil, dope, and sweat. He was always stoned on something, anything — but you could never tell. I hung out with the smart bad kids (as opposed to the smart good kids, whom we despised), but he was smarter and worse than any of us.
He showed me the scar where he’d gotten his thumb cut off in a knife fight, telling me how he put it in a jar and took it home to his father, who was a surgeon, to sew back on. His improbably dangerous life, his gift for the spontaneous lie, and my inexperience made it hard to tell what was real. But I was having difficulty with that question anyway.
He rarely attended classes, but would occasionally stroll in, write something cryptic on the board — “Say ‘erg’ to a crusty biscuit” — wink at me, and walk out before the teacher could gather his wits. Just to see him made me literally dizzy, something that has not happened to me since.
He first kissed me just before the beginning of Western Civilization, on the pink terrazzo stairs to the second floor. It was a wet, sudden thing, after which he promptly vanished into the swirling, between-classes crowd. Western Civ was a class of superlative stupidity even for my high school, where there was stiff academic competition. I had all the time in the world to sit in my chair and blush, smile foolishly, then try to stop blushing and smiling.
It was not the sensation, of course. Only the event, which was in the nature of a miracle. It was the Great Divide. All my life I had done one thing, and now I had done something unimaginably different. All the terrible mysteries were opening to me. Not that I thought that then. All I thought then was: “I’m wonderful.”
Kay Levine Spencer
The two of us sat on my friend’s big bed, hunched over a sex manual. We had “borrowed” it, secretly, from her sister’s lower desk drawer. We locked our door so no one would find us.
We were twelve years old and in love with boys. French kissing sounded so romantic. We began there. The manual described how it was done: “Leave your lips open as you kiss. Slide your tongue into the other person’s mouth while kissing and move it around sensually.”
We giggled. It sounded so sinful. We decided to try it. And so my first kiss: Roberta’s tongue, foreign to mine, with a new taste, slid around in my mouth, then mine in hers.
Even now, as I write this, my heart quickens and my body tingles as I remember that first kiss — secret and forbidden.
Karen Rae Bratnick
Basking Ridge, New Jersey
In sixth grade, Peter Taylor stole a kiss one day after school, while we were sitting on the front steps of my house. His mouth was droopy and wet. It felt like kissing a dog.
At fourteen, I lapped up romantic scenes in movies: he and she stand gazing into each other’s eyes; his eyes lower to her mouth; they start to move in — slowly, so slowly you don’t know if they’re going to make it. You’re dying in your seat. She closes her eyes and lifts her chin a little. This is the moment of sweet surrender. He tilts his head to one side to avoid her nose.
You pretend to kiss at night, practicing with your pillow, the same pillow that absorbs your tears and prayers, hugs you back as you dance around the room. Locked in the steamy bathroom, you try it in the mirror. You can almost conjure fire, but the cold glass breaks the spell. You long for a real flesh-and-blood boy to take you in his arms. Will it ever really happen?
At fifteen, I am sitting in my favorite place in school, the wide window seat at the end of the hall, watching snowflakes drift softly from a low, gray sky. Jack Wimple comes whistling up the hall. He rides my bus, and we kid around a little. He leans over me, peering out the window. “Hey, it’s snowing!” I smile at his wide green eyes, the freckles across his blunt, upturned nose. “I love snow!” he says. “Want to go out for a walk?”
“Sleigh bells ring — are you listening? In the lane, snow is glistening. . . .” We are singing as we leave the familiar world of school behind. Traffic thins, sounds are muffled; we are enclosed in the quiet intimacy of snow. We follow the winding curves of the black Huron River, admiring the grace of inky branches outlined in white. Jack takes my hand. Absorbed in the scene, we walk for so long the street lights come on, casting warm circles of light over sparkling slopes. Startled, we turn and head back. It’s so cold that our gloved fingers are going numb. “Take off one glove,” Jack says. “Put your hand in my pocket.” We hold hands inside his pocket all the way back to town.
“This isn’t enough for me,” Jack says.
“What do you mean?”
“I’d like to kiss you.”
“I don’t know. . . .”
“Let’s just try it. If you don’t like it we won’t do it anymore.”
“Well. . . .”
The brick walls and yellow windows of our school are a comforting sight. I feel very nervous as Jack holds the door for me. “Mrs. Dover’s room is empty,” Jack says. He leads me in and shuts the door. Oh dear. I stand with my back to the wall, waiting. Jack hovers over me.
“You’re so pretty,” he says.
“Thanks.” I can’t look at him. I know he hasn’t seen the same movies, because he grabs the back of my neck and teasingly pulls me toward him.
“Come here, you.”
Before I can dig in my heels, he lunges at me and catches my mouth with his mouth. His lips are wet and cold. Jack says, “Not bad for our first try. Let’s do it again.” Then the door swings open. A few of our schoolmates spill into the room.
“Hey, there’s somebody here behind the door — kissing!”
“It’s Jack and Jill.”
They tumble out again. Jack rolls his eyes. “That spoils it. Let’s try again later on.”
I edge toward the door. “Maybe. Maybe later.”
I never kissed Jack again.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
I had been practicing for several weeks, holding my pillow and kissing it until I became very cool and suave. I was ready. That night with Judy, I was so nervous I hardly saw the movie at all. Occasionally, I would turn my head to the side and press my lips to the back of my hand, getting in a little last-minute practice.
After the movie, I walked Judy quickly up the porch steps to her front door, and then — knowing that if I slowed down I would lose my courage — I leaned down and pushed my face into hers for all of three seconds. The porch began to tilt and careen wildly. My face was burning and my head was spinning. I remember shoving Judy toward the door, turning abruptly and walking off the edge of the porch, picking myself up and walking flat into the huge elm tree in her front yard.
Somehow, I got home that night, but I was a psychological mess. My plans for achieving manhood had been severely set back. There was much more to this sex stuff than I had ever imagined. My pillow had never stuck its tongue in my mouth.
G. Lynn Nelson
It was 1950. I was a gawky fourteen, he a shy nineteen-year-old college student. But my rite of passage had more to do with my best friend, Elaine, than with him. She and I had, some months before, solemnly and self-pityingly drawn up a betting contract: If ZK reaches the ripe age of sweet sixteen and still has not been kissed (sob!), EB will give her ten cents forthwith. If ZK does get kissed before that time, she will pay EB the same sum.
The boy grabbed my shoulders and pushed his hard, dry mouth tightly against mine. His face felt like a fist. I was relieved when he moved away. I ran back home, grinning, rapidly addressed an envelope to Elaine, and triumphantly sent her a dime.
New York City
I knew all about kissing when I was nine. I had never done it, but I had read about it and knew what to expect. This sentence, from a book called Seventeenth Summer, stuck with me: “Jack kissed me, and his lips were as soft as a new raspberry.” This sounded wonderful, and I knew my first kiss would be just like that.
It wasn’t. My first kiss, planted on me by an eighth-grade boy who had moments before kicked me in the shins, came as a shock. New raspberry? His lips were more like slimy worms. It was disgusting, and I never wanted to do it again.
Kissing got better over the years. I had boyfriends, and later a husband to practice on. But nothing ever lived up to the kissing I’d read about in Seventeenth Summer.
After I had been divorced for a few years, I was tired of dating and pretty fed up with men in general. Then I had a first date with a man who seemed different from all the rest. That night, standing in the little hallway by my apartment door, this man leaned his face gently over mine and kissed me good night. The little hallway filled with raspberries and the sweet innocent softness of summer, and I knew I was home at last. That’s what I consider to be my real first kiss.
I married that man.
New York City
My first kiss on the mouth, the real thing, was in J.W.’s car one night at Porpoise Point. I was fourteen and he was a year older. He had taken it upon himself to teach all the freshman girls how to kiss. He was patient, his instructions broken into three easy steps: mouth slightly open, lips soft, tongue relaxed. Nothing else happened. We just kissed.
When I was thirty-eight, I resumed a love affair that had begun in junior high, waxed and waned in high school, resumed again in college, then ended for many years. The final episode didn’t last long, and, knowing that it wouldn’t, we decided to enjoy it to the fullest. For us, this meant mostly kissing, long, dreamy kisses that took us out of ourselves.
One evening, I told him that, in all honesty, he was the best kisser I had ever known. He looked at me with an equally grave expression, then began to laugh.
“Of course you’d think so,” he said. “You’re the one who taught me how to kiss.”
He told an elaborate story about how, when I was fifteen and he was fourteen, I had taught him how to kiss in the back seat of a car after church one night, between mouthfuls of corn dogs and frosties at the A&W Root Beer Stand.
I had no memory of that event, but I believed him. Three years earlier, I had run into J.W. for the first time in nearly ten years. We made small talk for a while, when suddenly, for no reason, I asked him if he remembered teaching me how to kiss when we were in high school. He didn’t recall a thing.
St. Augustine, Florida
I simply can’t keep away from first kisses. They attract me like the moon attracts upward gazes. A first kiss is utter and ultimate, sensorily astounding, always precious. The great thing is, you can never have too many to have another first kiss. It takes only a new day, a new smile, and the pull of a common moon.
My first first kiss was with an older woman. Cindy was five; I was four and a half. I recall her vividly, standing in the doorway of the bathroom of our trailer in Bigstone Gap, Virginia, her straight blond hair soft and thick. She was giggling as I dropped a nickel into a glass of water. When I turned the glass up and drank until it was empty, she stopped laughing. I didn’t actually mean to swallow the nickel (I thought I’d just hide it in my cheek), but it went down easily enough, and then we were both impressed.
It rained threateningly that night. The dirt roads were a mess. So when Cindy’s mother decided to stay over, she and my stepmother agreed that Cindy and I would sleep in the same bed. That was fine with us, as we had fallen in love that day, conjecturing wildly about the fate of a certain coin.
It was a night of many firsts. “This,” said Cindy, as she stretched naked on top of me in the little cot, “is what Mommy and Daddy do. I’ve seen ’em do it.”
A few weeks later, when my stepmother caught me practicing similar skills with my stepbrother, she whipped us both. But it was too late. I had already experienced my second first kiss, and it was good. My life stood like a rocket, aimed for a third.
My father came into my bedroom and sat down. I continued folding clothes.
Although my first date was still years into the future, perhaps my father noticed that I was on the threshold of puberty. He gave me his first and last lesson on love, sex, and intimacy.
Whatever my father actually said, what I heard and built my life around was this: “If you don’t like a boy, don’t kiss him, because that wouldn’t be truthful. If you do like a boy, don’t kiss him, because that leads to trouble. Do you understand?”
I didn’t understand at all. I opened the escape hatch I made on the top of my head for an exit from unbearably confusing situations. I went through the hatch and floated away. I continued folding clothes. My father left the room.
I’m sure my father’s parents never gave him any useful or encouraging advice on sex, love, or intimacy, either by word or example. Even talking about these subjects must have been difficult for him.
And so I invented the rule that kissing boys was something dangerous and shameful, that I’d better not want to do it, that it had better not happen to me.
Accordingly, when the first kiss inevitably did happen, I made sure not to be there, not to be present, not to be in my body. I opened the escape hatch and floated away.
Years later, on a gray and chilly Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend and I came in from a walk and lay down together on the couch for a welcome nap in the warmth of his apartment. We settled into sleep.
The next thing I knew, a sweet shiver, a gentle electrical tingle, was running along my spine and down through the back of my knees and legs. I awoke, knowing I had at last allowed myself to be touched, to be made to feel, within that numb, dark, blank interior that I had so carefully sealed off from entry. In the next moment, I understood that my friend had kissed me awake.
At that time of my life when I was still trying so hard to be the person I thought my father wanted me to be, it was only while I was unaware, while I was sleeping, that I could begin to receive a kiss, my first kiss, the first kiss that was really mine.
Cullowhee, North Carolina
Ugly concrete blocks had been erected at the edge of the playground. They were close enough to our classrooms that we could be quickly herded to safety at the first wail of the air raid siren signaling an enemy attack. No matter that this was deadly serious; to seven-year-olds in wartime England, the weekly drills were an exciting break from classes, the shelters a magical escape into dark caves and mystical kingdoms.
Of course, they were strictly off-limits. “NO PLAYING IN THE AIR RAID SHELTERS” was prominently displayed at each entrance, and woe betide you if one of the class monitors (or worse yet, a teacher) should catch you trespassing. But forbidden entrance only made the refuge more enticing. Hearts pounding, the daring among us made daily forays into the shelters and even named one of them our club house. Membership was exclusive, and strictly for rebels — no wimps or sissies allowed.
It wasn’t the sort of environment to nurture romance, but I had this terrible crush on Tony, and he on me. We would hold hands in the dank darkness of the shelter, and once he sang me a chorus of “Three O’Clock in the Morning,” his mother’s favorite song.
Our friends giggled and taunted us, but we didn’t care. Then one day, they slammed the door and shut us in the shelter in the dark. We held hands and shivered in the musty-smelling gloom, feeling more than a little frightened. Then he kissed me. It surprised us both. A sweet, tentative, brushing of the lips that said, “I’ll take care of you. They don’t scare me.”
To this day, I don’t know whether my heart was thumping from fear or excitement, but nearly fifty years later and a whole world apart from Tony, I still remember that first sweet kiss.
Last night as I watched Robert Mitchum in a role as a sympathetic, middle-aged lover in a late-night movie, I was brought back to unwanted memories of my father. Something in Mitchum’s tall frame — his low voice, his slightly beaten and weary look suggestive of hidden thoughts — reminded me of my father, and even stirred feelings of love and longing that I couldn’t wipe away.
It is sickening to think my first kiss was given to me by my father. But the kiss I remember most vividly was a seductive one on a hot afternoon. I, the young girl who had many times before been seduced and exploited by my father, decided to lean over the sofa where he was napping and kiss him on the mouth. He sat up and pushed me away, looking around anxiously to see if anyone else was in the room. I can’t recall his words, but the idea was, “No, don’t! Someone might see. The rest of it never happened.” His face expressed shock, as if the inappropriate behavior had originated with me. It was as if he were, in daylight, a different person from the compulsive night-time molester of a trusting little girl.
Now, a few days after my deceased father’s birthday, I remember feelings of tender longing and painful rejection, instead of the ruin, guilt, and shame I have felt during a lifetime of troubled, confused emotions.
Some things happen only once, can happen only once, can never be repeated. Mind and body move toward them with that understanding: there can be no dress rehearsal, no encore; however the situation happens, that is how it will be entered in the memory banks for the rest of your life.
My first kiss was like that. It was the opening of a door into my body, the opening of a door into adulthood. In a certain way, it was even more significant than losing my virginity. That event, which I think should be called the finding of something rather than the loss, was for me an extension of my first kiss, and happened with the same wonderful woman.
We were standing under a tree, as I remember it. The sky was blue. The day was beautiful. She was beautiful. One might think of the soft touch of lips meeting for the first time, but for me the real kiss was in our eyes, in the way she looked deep into me and I looked deeply back. In my heart there was a muffled thunder. And as we held each other closely I thought, “This is it. This is what you have been waiting for, this moment. This is what the body has been yearning for.” I was happy and sad then. I remember that. Because something in me was being born, but something in me died also. I was lonely still, but I knew that I would never be alone in quite the same way again.
Some things can never be repeated. There can be a second or a third event, but they are not the same as the first. But every once in a while there is magic in the world. And we come to an event, in body and in mind, with all the newness and fear and wonderment we brought to that event the very first time it happened.
It was different to fall in love with him — different, frightening, and wonderful. He was unexpected and yet expected. He was a comet, tail aflame, streaking out across the starry night sky. It happened slowly; I came to him slowly. I can still remember the deep, deep opening in our eyes, that momentary flinging open of the windows to the soul. And as our lips met, softly, on the couch in his parents’ basement, I remember thinking to myself, “How wonderful life is, that something that can happen only once can actually happen twice.” It was to me a miracle. The same muffled thunder. I walked through a different doorway, turned with him into a world with no maps, a country with no guidebooks. Something in me died then, and someone new was born out of the ashes, as we lay side by side, quietly, on the old red couch in that little paneled room.
Brooklyn, New York
For ten months you and I were inseparable. My mind would so often wander to thoughts of you. At first you didn’t seem real. Then I could feel you touching me — a tickling that grew stronger until your existence was unmistakable. It was so difficult to wait until I could touch your soft skin, wrap my arms around you, weep from the joy of you. Having felt this intense pleasure before, I found waiting for you even harder.
Then you were here! There is such a thing as love at first sight. The cord that had connected us was cut, but our first kiss bound our spirits together for eternity.
The French have one word for “hug” and “kiss,” just as they have one word for “like” and “love,” and perhaps for the same reason.
This is appropriate to Violet and me, as our first kiss was a hug. (Actually a hug is a kiss, or would be if we were giant pairs of lips.)
We used to walk together, in Tompkins Square Park, that spring of 1986, as the Manhattan earth gave forth bud, and we felt the restless bunching of nerves that makes birds fly.
One day, just as she was about to mount her bike, she threw her arms around me. Why did it make me so glad? Because it was from a source I never hoped to find happiness in — as if suddenly you could eat zippers, and they tasted like ham.
Later we did kiss, on the platform of Grand Central Station, traveling to John Patton’s loft bed, where I saw her breasts for the first time. But that kiss was overly expected, and sexual. (Sexual kisses are so contractual.)
I prefer hugs to kisses because they’re less one-on-one. One may hug for a nation (as when Eleanor Roosevelt hugged Helen Keller), but one kisses for oneself.
From the mouth emerge all lies, but arms innocently build hampers and bassinets — and the noble back, where hugs often terminate, lifts flour and sesame seeds and the world.
But the tongue is the wiliest organ, and once one has touched yours, it’s hard to work six-month shifts on a submarine or enter the Dominican order.
The Staten Island Ferry
My second summer at church camp, I met Joan, from San Antonio, and fell in love. I was thirteen, from the small town of Victoria, and didn’t know many big-city girls. Joan and I danced close, talked a lot, and each night, after the closing circle, I would walk her to the girls’ cabins and kiss her on the cheek. It was exhilarating. For the entire seven days of camp, I would kiss her cheek and race through the sparse woods that separated the boys’ and girls’ cabins so that I wouldn’t be late for lights-out.
I looked forward to the following summer; I daydreamed of wild adventures with Joan. She, however, didn’t come back. I was depressed until I met Martha, from Corpus Christi. At the opening singsong, we made all the fourteen-year-old preliminaries — and then we both knew that we would be boyfriend and girlfriend for ten days. I walked her to the girls’ cabins that night like a pro, paused under a large oak, and kissed her on the cheek. She drew away, looking startled — then she grabbed my face and gave me the longest, wettest French kiss I could have imagined. I could feel my pulse go immediately into overdrive; my temples throbbed; I got an instant erection; the world was reeling. Being a quick learner, I kissed her back. She whispered, “I’ll meet you in the east classroom at 1 in the morning. Be there.” With that, she hurried to her cabin.
I made it back to my cabin, still light-headed, and left my jeans on when I climbed into my bunk. It was then that I realized I did not have a watch or an alarm clock, and had no way of knowing what time it was. Lights-out was at 11, but how was I going to mark the hours until 1 o’clock?
All I could think of was to count off the seconds, the way I’d learned in Boy Scouts. I lay there, counting, “One thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and three. . . .” I never had a chance. I don’t think I made it past twenty, and the next thing I knew, I was hearing the wake-up bell. Mortified, I rushed to morning chapel and saw Martha. The look on her face told me that she had kept the appointment, and she had no truck with a boy who didn’t.
During the service, using gestures and mouthing words, I tried to explain and apologize, but I succeeded only in drawing a curious stare from one of the priests.
Later that morning, Martha let me know that the whole deal was off. During chapel, I noticed that she was making some pretty heavy eye contact with Tommy, who was in the cabin next to mine. He was fifteen, and he had a watch.
James M. Abernathey
My first kiss almost happened when I was in Europe on a study tour. I was sixteen and had, in fact, never been kissed. Six of us were sitting in a hotel room during free time. Rick was stretched out on the floor with his head in my lap. I was more than a little excited. He reached up to touch my face (prelude to a kiss?) and exhilaration flew through me. When he immediately pulled his hand back (disgusted at the texture of my cheek? at my oily, teenage skin?), I was humiliated. And it couldn’t even be a private humiliation: the four others in the room stifled laughs. Rick’s reaction to touching me confirmed what I had already suspected, that I was disgusting, unkissable.
Eighteen years later, my skin is clear but I’m still unkissed.
She was twelve. I was nine. It was the year of red parkas, 1956. We put them on in October; they stayed on through Easter, deflecting gray skies, rain, and pelting snow. We played, just the two of us, all over the vast expanse of prairie enclosed by our two fathers’ farms, crawling through culverts, rolling down ditches, climbing gnarly box elder, riding ponies through dead willow thickets in the river bottom. I admired her legs, slim under faded jeans, her blond ringlets, the way the wind turned her cheeks red and her breath to steam when we met, always carefully halfway, on the graveled township road linking our houses. It was November. Scudding clouds filled the vast bowl of sky.
Our bodies, tiny, yet filled with an energy like the wind’s, spun dizzy-making circles on the splintered face of an old flatbed trailer. At a certain moment, we bumped shoulders, fell, chest to parkaed chest, wrapped arms, exchanged smells, pressed lips together, and dropped on our backs, exalted by daring.
It was an ending. She learned to drive their green pickup and started school in town. I wore my red parka one more year at the country school, then moved east, to the city. I heard she works on an assembly line now, her family’s farm swallowed up by agribusiness; she has grown kids and an absent husband. I spend my days in a carpeted office listening to educated complaints, drive home in a Scandinavian car to an artist wife and a precocious daughter.
I can still feel her breath on my cheek.