On Kissing

 

A photo surfaced recently: a mother tiger and a host of infant pigs in tiger suits. Bereaved mother nurses extra-species offspring! Animal kingdom a warm and fuzzy place! The photo was a hoax, of course. Some attempt at entertaining tourists by staff members at a Thailand zoo. Take pictures of this extraordinary act! They have it from the pig’s perspective too: Mama sow suckles tiger cubs. Maternal instincts indiscriminate! Tourists lined up to marvel at the gentle creatures while zoo directors bred endangered species behind closed doors (and sold those cubs for parts). Thank god for the Internet, lest we believe the propaganda and the ruse. Still, debunked and all, the image has its power. The predators and prey—they’ve learned to coexist.

Ever wonder why we are the only species to consume the milk of other species? So far just cows and goats and buffalo, but give us half a chance at Mama Tiger and we would likely hook her udders up for peak production, too.

Freud said we kiss to simulate the long lost suckle impulse at a mother’s breast. The impulse to seek comfort, nourishment, in another’s teat. Without delving too far into interspecies suckling, I’d like to talk about the kiss. Good old-fashioned tonsil hockey, pastime, treasure, institution. Smooching, necking, making out. For blissful decades of increasingly unrestricted sexual expression, my countrymen and women have been practicing the buss, the lip lock, osculation.

We act like we invented it. We didn’t. Listen to Catullus V:

da mi basia mille, deinde centum,

dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,

deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum;

dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,

conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,

aut ne quis malus invidere possit

cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

Or: kiss me thousands upon hundreds of times and then that much again. Kiss me until we have to (shake the abacus!) hide the number from our jealous friends.

Calvino spoke of lovers meeting mouths like “serpents concentrated in the ecstasy of swallowing each other in turn” and “the process of ingestion and digestion” that turns lovers into eaters and eaters into lovers and all of us into cannibals.

I digress. I got that from a Guardian article and ran with it. Most bright-eyed adolescents could give a fig for Latin verse or pervy Italian prose. They want their entertainment simple, after ballparks, hamburgers, and beer. No surprise, however, that appetites for osculation should be as acute as appetites for food. We are gluttons. We are overweight and overfed. (I was both, once, and before that I nearly starved.)

We eat early; we eat often. Twelve-year-olds have started smashing tongues down one another’s throats behind their locker doors. Frantic educators daily pry apart our titillated youths. Yet so much teenage status depends upon it. We must not be the last one in our grade bearing the brand of “never been kissed.” So we pucker up and spin the bottle. We spend seven minutes in heaven with strange boys who smell of tuna fish and Fruit Stripe gum until we’ve learned our tricks.

*

This was never my experience. I plotted, surely, swinging from the jungle gym. My pubescence stirring, the telltale tingle of the lady parts, with the certainty that it might be years before somebody joined his searching lips to mine. I told myself that I was better off. I didn’t want some pock-marked beanpole of a boy; I wanted Harrison Ford. I wanted Captain Von Trapp to lead me through the Ländler. I wanted leather elbow patches, corduroy, and tweed. In darkness, I held tight my lime-green Costco teddy bear and dreamt of climaxes on heaths and moors with men in heavy waistcoats.

I should confess (if yet I haven’t) I was a fat kid with a bowlie, then. This is no self-deprecating retrospect speaking. But by the time I blossomed into womanhood, or whatever mutant flower I became, I thought I am a good kisser. I am prepared. (All those motherless years spent sucking at my thumb would come to good—thank you once more, Sigmund Freud[1]—not to mention all the latent passion wiggling into bloom.)

My dad and I watched enough chick flicks to know how it was supposed to go. In Man’s Favorite Sport?, trains collided overhead for heaven’s sake. Paula Prentiss could barely get her words out by the end. This was the tortured foreplay of the kiss—months of hopeless banter, fertile pauses, awkwardness—and finally the moment on the rubber raft, where Rock Hudson finally leans in, two locomotives crash together, and all logistics disappear. I could be patient, I avowed. I could wait for that.

Predictably, it did not go this way. There was a first kiss—that was nice. (He’d be my first a few times after that.) There were more high school kisses in his wake. Then college kisses, grown-up kisses, desperation kisses. Enough for catching mononucleosis, or maybe an emotional disease. Eager lizard tongues and spit secretions, mashing lips and teeth, I kissed a lot of frogs. Leading, leaping, Twelve-Days-of-Christmas mouths. Outside dances and water fountains, in off-class hours.

I remember feeling nauseous afterward, as if I’d been diluted. I remember thinking it was sad. I could hardly bear them after that. I sprinted from hard-stalked affection in the lunchroom, a big animal darting across the plain to get away. I wriggled from their pubescent paws. Then, older, wiser, I simply never called. You can tell about a kisser in his first two seconds. (So many bewildered men we women leave behind in bars. I have to go! We shriek, brandishing our phones, clip-clapping out of pubs and into cabs.) Without that chemical connection, all other interest fades. A man is just another sliming mouth.

They weren’t all bad. Some were downright masterful, like the older boy who took me to Friday movies in the family minivan. He was a patient kisser, long and slow. There were South American kisses, one boliche-lovely and the other gross. Then there was the one I trained; he won plenty of sixes for technical merit, but the magic wasn't there. I left him for a woman, someone I could use to kiss away the clammy boys. She was my redemption. I took a break to wipe my sleeve across my mouth. She broke my heart.

*

My mother was ambushed once—in an Upper East Side piano bar—by a man who kept insisting he should pay her tab. At evening’s end, he asked her to accompany him outside so he could kiss her.

“Girls, this man wants to go outside and kiss me,” she hissed (and forgive the italics in her voice; she’d been heavy at the vodka crans). “Should I let him? Show of hands.”

The yeas had it; six hell-yeahs shot up in the air. 

“Really?” she said, even as he, grinning, led her out the door. It was her first kiss after the divorce. I think she pecked him, patted his chest, and told the man to run along. I think he grew insistent; I think he charmed his way into some proper lip-on-lip.

Afterwards, I was triumphant on her behalf. My mama had her game back.

“Oh, kiddo,” she said. “He’s probably some kind of kissing bandit.”

I laughed her all the way to Queens, to my one-room-studio apartment, but she must have had it right. She saw him every time she flew from Florida to visit me. He bought her drinks—once they even split a turkey club—and then he’d kiss her. It was a great story: My mother and the kissing bandit, Ira Feinberg.

We Googled him: the former CFO of some formerly secure financial institution. That somehow made my mother buoyant—more so than all the kisses in the world. He flew down to see her once, then disappeared.

“What’d I tell you?” she said. “What’d I tell you…”

*

By then I was more or less a woman, in a phase I found perplexing even then: Three grown men in a row refused to kiss me. The Hobbit, Non-Date Guy, and finally a boyfriend of two years—we’ll call him Peter Pan. I wrote letters to the first two (my mother called them Love Letters to Men Who Don’t Deserve You), baseball analogies fallen on inattentive ears. I’m sitting in a field, I said to number one. We’ll call it left. And you invited me here, but you never showed up. With number two I was more overt: Waiting for that high fly ball that just won’t come off the bat.

The irony is: they wanted to. One was pathologically respectful, five-foot-seven, and emotionally stalled. The other an undergraduate professor with a Homer Simpson clock, a consummate lost cause. Both kissed me eventually. One I had to fly to Chicago for, but by that time, I’d been cured of him (time, too much anticipation, Thai-food breath). I went because I needed victory, and came home crushed from yet another tonsil licking, yet another saurian emptiness. The other guy took years. (!) Years of seven-hour dates and rounds and rounds of hoppy beers in baseball bars. We wandered laps around Manhattan, my hand left dangling at my side. We sat in movie multiplexes, my shoulder angling at the armrest. We flirted, parried, sparred. But then, the lights always came up; the barmen and the clean-up crews swept up around our feet. I got nothing but perfunctory hugs until the night he flung his arms around me waiting for the last commuter train to take him up the Harlem Line. He smelled a little of reheated fish. He clutched my back too hard. In either case I didn’t win. (Kissing past the statute of limitations. Kissing after broken pride.)

Peter was my accident. He wasn’t crashing any trains. I could look at him across a table without feeling that holy crap, he’s going to break my heart. (I call this the uh-oh; without it, hope for love is lost.) The breath that welled up from his organs wasn’t right. We should have pushed each other off the nursery sill, but we were scared to be alone. We cultivated a complex companionship. He bought me dinners; I located his socks. We were comfortable enough, but when he took my hand, he immediately sought to extricate his fingers from the grip. He’d kiss me only when he got too drunk. It was wet and open, gin-soaked, and I should not have stayed.

*

After that, and in the in-between, I gave plenty of pity kisses, politeness kisses, kisses made of guilt. Thank you for the dinner and the beer. No need to go home empty handed. How long do I have to pretend to like this before I can duck out of this subway station, buy a pint of Häagen Dazs, and hail a cab? Some were acts of desperation: I am so lonely, I will kiss you just to taste your spit. Wanting the proof of someone’s name to carry in my cell phone. It was not for pleasure by itself. (Some certainly were feats of sport.) But each bad kiss was just another child’s handprint on the outside pane of glass, the one—at least in cities—that you cannot wash.

It sounds as though I’ve kissed a lot of boys, and I suppose I have, but so few ever stuck around.  It was kissing as a litmus test, a numbers game. Kissing the way a child touches oven tops. Kissing with instant regret.

I kissed to find in someone else’s facial flesh some Neolithic spark. I wanted some combustion, conflagration, love. I kissed to find the boy who’d crash my trains, who’d conjure all the crashes in the history of automotive transportation. As if the saliva of my match would taste distinct. Not too basic, no bad breath. The right balance of moisture, lip to tongue. I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to be surprised.

You remember the real loves and the really bad ones only; the rest you struggle to write down. Every woman raised on rom-coms lives through this disillusionment. Before I met the man I’d kiss until my face began to bleed, I learned three things: There were men who wouldn’t kiss me. There were men who would. And Mr. Hudson? He was gay.

*

The Romans had three kinds of kisses: osculum (the cheek), basium (the lips), savolium (the deepest passion). The former two are simple pecks, engaging a pair of muscles chastely; the latter uses thirty-four.[2] Early Christians added the osculum pacis, a holy kiss, a kiss of greeting in which the spirits of two penitents are transferred. Kisses throughout history have been sex acts, contracts, farewell poems, and acts of sublimation. Men were said to dominate the woman’s mouth with tongue technique, stimulating her unconscious drives despite herself. Releasing oxytocin, dopamine, adrenaline, et cetera. By the time passion became a partner act, the French made this an art form, calling it rouler un patin or rouler une pelle (to roll a skate or roll a shovel… quelle romance.) Kissing since has broken free from gendered limitation. We all have our reasons. We both win and lose our games.

Research suggests that women seek out men to kiss whose immunoproteins differ from their own. When we open our mouths to each other’s germs[3], we’re also exchanging antibodies. Kissing as community inoculation. Kissing to fortify ourselves. As if by fusing faces for a moment, we could complete our weaker parts and pieces and somehow end up strong?

Maybe we are all just kissing bandits. I, for one, was that little gawky bird that went around demanding of dump trucks, “Are you my mother?” Only I was after love.

I remember walking once with Non-Date Guy through Central Park. A half-naked busker played the accordion in a cartoon-feathered headdress and a pair of women’s gladiator sandals (which were then in vogue). He was dreadful. “There is someone for everyone,” Non-Date said. “He’s just proof.”

I was naïve enough to take that as a sign—at very least an overture. We were all just wounded freaks and animals in need of understanding. If a piglet in a tiger suit could find its niche along a feline udder, why not I? Needless to say, I wasn’t Non-Date’s someone—or anybody else’s then—and I was sure the fault was mine. Doubts had rooted deep. I convinced myself that I was undesirable. I was worthy of camaraderie and baseball chat, but fell short inspiring passion. I did not make people pine. I let myself go sour inside. Pattern became pathology. And after Peter, it became Pavlovian. I no longer even knew how to be touched.

*

The first time a grown man kisses your breasts in such a way that you don’t laugh can be a shock. (Horny teenage boys go at them sometimes, tongues a-lapping, and who hasn’t found that funny?) But something happens when he lets slide your shoulder straps, and makes baptismal lip prints downwards from your décolleté.  It helps if dawn is creeping through the curtain cracks to turn your linens blue. His eyes are closed; his breath is warm. All talk of Freud has disappeared.

(I swore he wasn’t interested. Until he tilted my face up to his, at the corner of 34th and Ohmygod...) But even then: The walls of a psyche heavily defended are difficult to fell. (Traffic lights shuffled through their colored signals. The winter evening gave up being cold.) I projected my past failures on him, my doubts all over him, all over the kind of kiss you write your mom about. Was he a kissing bandit? Was he even real? This time, he was. Patience in kissing can be quite the virtue. His organ smell was perfect. He pushed my hair out of my eyes and I said uh-oh.

Catullus, again. This time number VII: Quaeris, quot mihi basiationes/ tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque. The lover says: “You ask…how many of your kisses are enough and more than enough for me.” And answers:

quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae

lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis

oraclum Iovis inter aestuosi

et Batti veteris sacrum sepulcrum;

aut quam sidera multa, cum tacet nox,

furtivos hominum vident amores:

“As big a number as the Libyan sand grainsthat lie at silphium-bearing Cyrenebetween the oracle of sultry Jupiter and the sacred tomb of old Battus; or as many stars, when the night is quiet, see the secret loves of men.” Translation: billions. (Shake that abacus again.)

So many kisses—for mad Catullus, mad anyone, and everyone—to kiss, beloved. For mad me to kiss you back against that pillar in Penn Station. Even then, we won’t be sated. I will not be sated. The philematologists can argue all they like about the musculature, and Freud can have his moralistic say. But kissing, for all it’s done in public, is a private place. A momentary covenant. And we share with our orbiculares oris kisses, which (says Catullus) “neither the curious can countnor an evil tongue bewitch.”

He was no wolf in ovine clothing, but a tiger seeking comfort in a sow—or maybe it’s meant to be the other way around: I the fierce cat, queen of jungle floors, and he the wayward glutton for my milk. Regardless, we have come to coexist. I’d like to say I saw those trains collide, but I was busy kissing back. My chemic circuits overwhelmed. They say the act of kissing lets fly certain neurotransmitters, the same as running, parachuting, bungee jumping. A chasm opened up beneath me. Happily I fell.

 

*  *  *

 

[1] “It is not every child who sucks in this way. It may be assumed that those children do so in whom there is a constitutional intensification of the erotogenic significance of the labial reason. If that significance persists, these same children when they grow up will become epicures in kissing…” (Freud: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905.)

[2] The major one of these, the orbicularis oris, is one without which we could neither talk nor kiss—let alone suckle a mother’s breast.

[3] Up to 250 colonies of bacteria.