A brief history of kisses

photo: Chris Ocken Photography

Stolen outside Still Middle School after the eighth grade dance, in the dark. His lips were laced with Dr. Pepper. His body held a trace of Old Spice mixed with sweat. Mom was waiting for me in the car. Yes, he used tongue. My first kiss. This was definitely not his.

That’s a lie. It wasn’t my first at all. Undoubtedly, my first kiss came from my mother. Soft, slow and warm, showered on my small crown. That day I left the comfort of her womb for the cold, wide world; that day she cradled me close, feeling the terrifying, joyous weight of me; that day she became brand new and aged at once — a mother. Oh what I’d give to relive that sweet, sweet moment. This, too, is a half-truth, conjured from my imagination . . .

. . . reconstructed from fresh memories of brushing my lips across my newborn boy’s lush, vanilla skin. He’s now three, and I still sprinkle him with kisses every chance I get, dreading the day he won’t let me. One night, a year or so ago, my tiny tyrant stood tall in his crib, defying bedtime. His clarion call of “Mama! Mama!” summoned me to his side. “What. Is. It. Honey?” I clipped. His chubby toddler hands reached for my cheeks, then he planted a big wet one on my lips. I staggered back. That kiss took my breath away.

Brian Doyle’s done it.

Alice Walker too.

And Min Jin Lee and Paul Kalanithi and Callie Feyen and Kelly Corrigan. So has Beth Ann Fennelly, whose “A reckoning of kisses” inspired this reflection.

How do you kiss someone with words? You open your heart on the page. The reader needs to be puckered, ready to receive it.

In Spain, when you greet someone, you offer dos besos. At a crowded bar in Madrid, a few years out of college, dos besos from my best friend, plus her handsome Spanish novio, revived me. Before that trip I’d been drifting through young adulthood. Is this it — life? I often wondered while staring out the window at my first job. I knew I was privileged to have work and yet it rarely sparked joy. Maybe life isn’t all about work, though. Dos besos said it isn’t.

The most passionate kiss I’ve ever had, the one that simultaneously sucked the oxygen out of my lungs and filled me up so much I nearly levitated, took place the summer before I studied abroad in Cambridge, England. The kisser in question and I had already exchanged goodbyes, so why was this young man now sprinting back to my front door? He held me with such force it seemed no amount of miles apart could untether us.

I wish I could tell you that’s when I knew. But the truth is, I knew many months prior, shortly after I fell out of my chair on our first date at Panera Bread in Valparaiso, Indiana, and we both bust out laughing. Reader, that man is now my husband.

On my father’s red, worn neck — velvet-smooth and sunburned from radiation treatment. A quick peck, really. When I encircled my arms round his newly skinny frame, time stretched out and I held all our kisses from birth until the present with such tenderness it brought me to tears.

A well-written kiss is, as Stephen King puts it, “telepathy, of course.” I keep trying to capture life with language the way great authors have for me, for all of us. I still have much to learn, but I continue to practice because writing is the best means of expressing love I know — other than kissing. Good stories sweep us off our feet, make us weak in the knees and kiss our souls with their deep understanding of our secret aches and glories. I want to bless you with that kind of knowing.

And yet, if pressed to choose a love language, I would choose a real kiss over words every time.

My dog Gus doles out giant, juicy ones, licking my lips. His boundless enthusiasm makes me blush in the presence of an audience. I adore his zealous, steady smooches. Daily Gus reminds me how to be a force of goodness.

This final, holy kiss I only witnessed: My grandmother, eyes shining, grazed her petal lips across my son’s cheek in the thick Louisiana heat last August. In my grandmother, I swear I saw a lifetime of kisses, her kissing my mother, kissing me, now kissing her great-grandson. Maybe kissing is the first way we, the lucky ones, learn how to love. The body remembers. 

That will not be the last one, Grandma, I promise. We are coming back for more.

I wrote this post as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. To read the next post in this series, click here. Image by: Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy

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