“Kissing” by Ron Tanner
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, we bring you Ron Tanner’s meditation on kissing, which originally appeared in TMR 32:3. Ron’s most recent book is his new story collection, Far West (2022), winner of the Elixir Press Fiction Award .
Oh! let me live for ever on those lips!
The nectar of the gods to these
How the Trouble Starts
I was five going on six when I saw my parents kiss for the first time. Really kiss, I mean. Like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. It was winter. My two brothers and I were sitting at the breakfast table, each of us before a bowl of steaming oatmeal.
Wearing his gray or brown suit, his briefcase in hand, my father always left the house first, while we were still eating. So he did on this morning. But when he and my mother came together for their usual good-bye peck, she cupped his neck with one hand and drew him down to her, then opened her mouth to his. And they went at it. I had never seen them like that, mouths locked as if exchanging the breath of life. The name for what they were doing I would learn years later: “French kiss.” “Tongue tango.” “Mouth hockey.”
We three boys gaped, our oatmeal cooling.
As Mom and Dad disengaged finally, I had the uneasy feeling that there was so much more to the world of grown-ups than I had imagined. Worse, it occurred to me that these two people on whom I relied for so much were strange, and that, really, I hardly knew them at all.
When I fell in love with Laura, a tall, blond girl in my kindergarten class, it seemed only natural that I should kiss her. For weeks I thought about doing this but couldn’t work up the nerve. The last day of class, I was as desperate as a six-year-old can get. I sat next to Laura in the back of the room as our classmates watched a cartoon about squirrels in spring. Then I leaned into her, inhaled her wondrous scent and whispered, “I love you.” She said, “I love you too, Ronald.” I kissed her on the cheek. I kissed her again. Laura reciprocated. Our childish pecks devolved into slobbery smooches. So much kissing left me breathless. But I couldn’t stop. I kissed Laura’s cheek, Laura’s chin, Laura’s nose, Laura’s forehead, Laura’s ear. I reveled in the sweet stink of our spit, strands of her hair in my mouth, her hot cheeks against mine. I didn’t stop until the lights came up.
“I saw what you did,” Deidre Watts accused me later. We were standing in the hallway waiting for our mothers to take us home. Laura was waiting outside.
I felt my face burn with vague shame. “What?” I stammered. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Kissing Laura in the dark—I saw, and I’m gonna tell.”
I wanted to protest, “What’s wrong with kissing?” But then I began to consider that anything so pleasurable couldn’t be without a cost.
“You kiss too hard,” one girlfriend told me when I was thirteen. I knew she was right. We kissed with closed mouths because we knew no better. She wore braces, and it must have hurt. I feared I was missing something. Why was kissing so thoroughly unsatisfying? My hard kisses were an insistent plea After my girlfriend and I broke up, I met Eleanor Wall.
She showed me that our lips could open. It was a revelation. Finally I realized what all the fuss was about. Eleanor and I spent most of the summer kissing until our lips were numb and swollen. Occasionally, to shake things up, we’d give each other a hickey. But the kissing—we couldn’t get enough of it. French kissing, yes, the exotic name fit because it was like learning another language or visiting a strange, beautiful land. Nothing this splendid could be home-grown.
Where the Trouble Leads
Katie, the woman who would become my first wife, had a theory about kissing. She said that when one person is attracted to another, pheromones rise to the lips. She called this “oyster breath” and claimed that it stirred in the other an irresistible appetite. True enough, when our mouths met, they smelled like tidal pools. We were not aware that scientists had proven Katie’s theory. Kissing excites and release hormones that create mild euphoria, leading to something akin to an addiction.
I was addicted to Katie. I bought her flowers and extravagant dinners, took her out every night, spent every free hour in her company, and still it wasn’t enough. When I wasn’t with her, I felt I was dying of dehydration. After a few months of this, I asked Katie to live with me. She balked. She said that if we were that serious we should get married. I had always claimed that I would live with my mate for at least a year before marrying her. It only made sense. But now nothing made sense except my need to be with this ravishing woman. Yes, of course we’ll get married! Never mind that we were just out of college and I was a musician without a gig.
Of all the kisses we shared, only one stays with me. The preacher had just pronounced us married. In the company of our immediate family, we were standing on a windy hill of the Marin headlands, a tourist lookout with a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay. We’d had no rehearsal, so the preacher was unprepared to orchestrate the reading of our vows, which we’d written ourselves. He read his part wrong and had to repeat it twice. Though a sunny day, it was cool enough to raise goose bumps on our exposed arms. Katie’s lavender dress stuttered and snapped in the wind.
I wasn’t ready for marriage. In the midst of the ceremony, I was suddenly convinced of this. Katie and I hardly knew one another. We had argued nearly every day for weeks before the wedding. It seemed we would agree on nothing. The only time it was good for us was when our mouths met and we forgot ourselves in our mutual lust. Lately that had occurred less and less.
When I kissed Katie at the close of our ceremony, it was closed-lipped and perfunctory for both of us, as if suddenly we were embarrassed. Panic was winging through me like a spooked sparrow in a cage. Katie was shivering from the cold. We embraced. Over her shoulder I saw a horde of tourists hiking toward us, a tour bus having just disgorged them at the bottom of our hill. It was remarkable that we’d had the lookout to ourselves for the ceremony. Suddenly we were surrounded by strangers: gleeful, middle-aged Germans, some of whom shook our hands. Had we been in Europe, I imagine people would have been kissing our cheeks.
Only a Kiss
In our fourth year of marriage, I began fantasizing about kissing other women. Women I’d see in passing. Women I’d see at my gigs. It was a bad sign, I knew. I tried to convince myself that it was nothing more than mental masturbation. But I was scared. I might as well have been carrying a loaded gun in my pocket.
I was working a club gig six nights a week that was an hour’s commute from our apartment. Though I loved music, I had grown to hate playing it to make a living. Five sets a night, six nights a week, the same songs performed the same way every night—it was no better than a factory job. I’d drive to work just as everyone was arriving home, the world opening up at the end of the day, couples walking hand-in-hand on the sidewalks at dusk, dining at candlelit tables in restaurants, stopping for wine at the gourmet grocer’s, laughing with their friends at the corner tavern. Every morning when I’d return at four, the traffic lights were blinking yellow and the world seemed abandoned.
Katie felt as trapped in her job as I in mine. She felt cheated too because I didn’t make much money, and we couldn’t afford the things she thought we deserved. We had separated briefly after our second year. She had moved east to stay with her parents for six months. Then I asked her back, determined to make a go of it. Now, most of the time we were together, we were arguing. To Katie I was a huge disappointment.
I longed for a kiss that would deliver me somehow from what I’d become or, rather, from the realization of all I had not become. And I found myself waxing nostalgic about how miraculous kisses had seemed when I was too young to know better, like the day my babysitter and neighborhood idol, Amanda Glass, had turned around at the baseball backstop just before she got up to bat and stooped to give me a wet one on my forehead. Oh, Lord, how the heavens opened at that moment, my forehead wet with Amanda’s mark!
One night after my gig, an ebullient, almond-eyed woman invited me to her place for breakfast. “We’ll be with my friends,” she said. “It’ll be fun.” At her apartment, she made breakfast as promised, but soon she pulled me to her, and our mouths met. Our kissing lasted a while. She tasted of cigarettes. So did Katie. And, like Katie, she was good with her tongue, taking it slowly, savoring me. Her kiss was a form of flattery.
My mouth open to this stranger, I felt like I was falling a long distance. I had never been a cheater or a liar. It was exhilarating, the way jumping through a plate-glass window might be exhilarating. At last I pulled myself back and, drawing a breath, told her I had to go. At my car, she kissed me again, then smiled knowingly. “See you tomorrow,” she said. This made the blood rush to my ears, and somewhere deep inside I heard a distant alarm: I hadn’t thought about tomorrow.
As I sped home on the freeway, I told myself that I had been lucky. I had done no more than kiss a stranger. It was cheating, sure, but not so bad that I couldn’t be forgiven. It wouldn’t happen again, I promised myself. Just then I heard the blaring of a car horn. Had I wandered into another lane? I focused on the road. The blaring continued. Someone’s headlights flashed at me from behind. I tried slowing down, then speeding up. This freeway was notoriously dangerous. The other car was now parallel with mine, on the passenger side. The driver was waving.
It was the almond-eyed woman. She grinned and blew me a kiss. Meekly I waved. Then she veered off to make the next exit. She lived a half-hour south of this exit—she’d been following me north. She might have followed me home.
I was so shaken I was tempted to pull to the shoulder to catch my breath. My heart was pulsing at the back of my tongue. The next night, upon returning to the bar where I gigged, I would have to tell this woman that I had made a mistake. I couldn’t begin to guess how she would react. She might bawl (she did), she might beg (she did), she might threaten (she did), she might make a scene (she did), but by the night’s end it would be over, and I’d be hating myself for a long time.
One Thing Leads to Another
My divorce from Katie—after ten painful years of marriage—made me feel like such a failure, I was desperate to prove myself. At thirty-five, I already felt old.
On the phone, my mother said, “I knew you two would never make it.”
“Are you kidding me?” I blurted.
“You were always bickering,” she said. “And then you forgot to pick up your good pants the day before your wedding. That told me it was over before it started.”
I had moved to another state and started a new job, having left music behind. Lonelier than I’d ever been, I befriended the secretary where I worked and told her my woes. She was a good listener. I tried to be a good listener in return, as she told me woes of her own. She wasn’t happy with her fiancé, who happened to be my supervisor.
Our department was rife with leavings and betrayals, and nobody could do anything without generating gossip, so maybe I was an object of gossip too. Recently somebody had left a handwritten note in my work mailbox. It said, “I’m watching you.” Was this meant to be flirtatious or threatening?
“Then why don’t you move out?” I asked.
“It gets complicated,” she said. She loved him, she said, and she didn’t want to hurt him, and there were finances to consider.
Oh, sure, I nodded. I was beginning to understand how complicated life could get.
We had lunch together and even a drink after work once or twice a week. I was spending so much time with her, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable whenever I saw her fiancé, my supervisor. It looked to be in a woman’s hand, but I couldn’t be sure.
One afternoon my friend took me to lunch at a place we’d never been. It was wood-paneled and dimly lit. We sat in one of the old wooden booths along the wall. My friend was wearing sunglasses. “Why don’t you take those off?” I asked.
“I don’t want to be seen,” she said.
“Then why are you here?”
“Because this is something I have to do.”
I nodded agreeably, though I wasn’t sure what she was saying. We ordered lunch. Then she stared across the table at me and said, “Come here.”
I leaned forward, thinking she was about to whisper a joke. But instead she kissed me, her mouth half opening as my Oh! of surprise met her welcoming lips. Then I fell back in my seat as if pushed.
She had very full, very soft lips.
She glanced to the bar to see if anyone was looking. I understood immediately that she would use me to get out of her relationship, and it would be a messy, horrible affair that would end badly all around, and I wondered how low I would go, now that I was already spiraling from a stake-in-the-heart divorce.
My answer came right away. “Come here,” my friend said again.
I leaned forward.
The History of Kissing
Second to my parents’ French-kissing, the most disturbing kiss I witnessed as a child was on television, when the comedian Jerry Lewis roughly cupped his grown son’s face in his hands and kissed the young man wetly on the mouth. I had never seen a father kiss a son so voraciously. It seemed almost violent. In 1837, a man sued a woman for biting off the tip of his nose after he forced a kiss upon her. The man lost his case. That same year, one researcher wrote,
The mutual touching of the lips and the mingling of the breath is one of the most natural expressions of affection. . . . Inferior creatures express tenderness in a similar manner, as the billing of doves; and many creatures touch objects of love with the mouth, or rather tongue. The faithful dog cannot show his affection to his master more clearly than by licking his hand.
Some who have researched kissing have speculated that its origins lie in our cave-dwelling past, when a mother would chew up meat, then put her mouth to her infant’s to pass the tasty mash—much the way a bird passes food to its chicks. Of all the kissing theories, I like this one best because what could be more sustaining than a kiss? That’s why we call sugared sweets “kisses.”
Sarah, the woman who became my second wife, didn’t like kissing. She never said this outright, but she made it plain every time our mouths met. Her tongue would jab through my lips, then poke around in my mouth—hard and fast. The first time we kissed, I thought she was teasing. I withdrew and looked at her in puzzlement. Her face registered no message. I let my mouth meet hers again. This time my tongue attempted to still hers, as a coach might wrap a protective arm around a riled athlete. But I met with no success. Her bullying tongue continued to pummel the interior of my mouth. I was confounded.
There are other forms of affection, I told myself. Sarah was an accomplished, beautiful person. Why would I hold her kissing against her? It didn’t occur to me that Sarah’s kissing might be a kind of warning or, even more disturbing, an honest expression of how she felt. Shamed by the failure of my first marriage and desperate to be a better man, I thought I owed it to myself to accept Sarah for who she was.
There was a time when the spectrum of kissing, and what each kiss signified, was as varied as the constellations in the Milky Way. Among strangers, acquaintances, merchants, maids, politicians, petitioners, friends and foes there was the kissing of hands, shoulders, wrists, knuckles, rings, shoes, rugs, coat cuffs, holy crosses, dress trains, cheeks, ankles, knees, books, contracts, flowers, swords and pens. How few things we kiss nowadays! We have diminished this act to simplistic categories: the familial kiss, the sexual kiss, the friendly kiss. As a result, none of us is well-versed in kissing. In part, that’s why I could not read Sarah’s. She left our marriage in its fourth year. We had stopped kissing altogether by that time. I realized that I could live without many things but not kissing.
Had you asked me years ago how I would look upon kissing in my middle years, I might have worried that I would be nostalgic or regretful, dwelling only on the romantic/sexual kiss. But memories of my history of kissing do not fill my head with romance or longing. Instead, they compel me to recall how vulnerable we are when we kiss, so little flesh between us and the other we would love. It is the most human act. Delivered with closed eyes and with great hope, no single gesture between two people takes more courage than opening one’s mouth to another.
I am not bold enough to kiss everyone I could or should. My brothers, for instance. I hug them but don’t kiss. There is more to learn, it seems. Still, I’m not convinced that the culture of our country will ever accommodate, much less understand, the variety of kisses it once did, though I do see fathers kissing their sons more freely now than I did as a child.
The kisses I most enjoy now—in my seventh year with Jill, my third wife—start simply, as pecks of greeting, but then these pecks give us pause, they are so enjoyable. After more pecking—I imagine we look like doves billing each other—our caressing grows until we are into some serious kissing. Sometimes we break off laughing. Other times we look at each other with satisfaction, as if to say, Mmm! In most cases, this bout of kissing sates us for the interim and we move on, each of us to our respective household task.
The other kiss I enjoy is the one I bestow on Jill’s sleeping face. This is the purest kind because it transcends desire and mirrors every kiss a parent bestows upon a sleeping child and every kiss a loved one imparts to a partner who must travel. It is the gentlest kiss because it’s meant to secure sleep, not interrupt it, and it is the most giving because it serves both as a benediction—“Farewell, my love, and God speed”—and a promise, as if whispering, “When you return, I will be here.” This is the kiss, I hope, that will send me from this world to the next.
Ron Tanner’s writing has been named “notable” in both Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories. His awards for fiction include the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize, the Jack Dyer Prize, the Charles Angoff Prize, the Faulkner Society gold medal, Pushcart Prize, New Letters Award, and many others, as well as fellowships from the Michener/Copernicus Society, Sewanee Writers Conference, and the National Park Service, to name a few. His novel Missile Paradise was named a “notable book of 2017” by the American Library Association. He lives on an historic farm in Maryland and directs the Good Contrivance Farm Writer’s Retreat, an educational nonprofit.
His most recent book, Far West, a story collection, won the Elixir Press book prize in 2020.
Way Back, Well Before My Divorce
Equally comedic and poignant, Adam Prince’s story “Way Back, Well Before My Divorce,” winner of our 2021 William Peden Prize in fiction, examines the many faces of naivete, from hopeful crowd members betting on a rigged shell game to a young man unknowingly crossing an invisible boundary with his girlfriend’s sister.
Here’s what novelist Michael Byers, the guest judge who selected this story as the winner of our annual best-of-volume prize, had to say about the story:
“It builds a portrait of a clueless young man who thinks he has all the answers while also, and this was especially gratifying, making me appreciate the form of the short story in a new way, i.e., it never says what it’s about but is firm enough in its shape to be entirely clear; it asks questions rather than delivers answers; and it too is vivid and memorable–all while being quite short! In itself a kind of sleight-of-hand game.”
Way Back, Well Before My Divorce
by Adam Prince
There was this other thing that happened. Or really two things bundled. While visiting my then girlfriend’s older sister in New York City, I got pulled into a shell game. Then, later that night, the sister asked me to help wax her armpits.
It was a day approaching Thanksgiving—clear and wincingly bright. Just off Washington Square some guy shifted a raw pea under three shells on a cardboard box. He was balding and potbellied with a five o’clock shadow—or more like nine thirty. And something wrong with his eyes. One of them pulled toward his nose.
Five or six people gathered around: a white guy in a gray suit, a black guy in a white suit, a gypsy-looking woman with ragged flowers on her hat. Some others.
I liked their diversity. Their liveliness, too. Jumping around when they won. Throwing their hats down when they lost.
I’d just moved east for college Upstate, and remembering this now feels like watching an early-twentieth-century melodrama, with the villain twisting his mustache and the naive young man.
What happened later that night resembled no genre I’ve ever heard of.
In a narrow apartment, my girlfriend’s older sister and I were eating Ethiopian food off the same plate with our hands—which is how you’re supposed to do it—when she said, “So Gwendolyn tells me you’re into processes.”
I’d never thought about whether I was into processes or not but guessed it was probably true. Gwendolyn had gone to a better high school than me and attended a better college. And once, out of nowhere, she’d proclaimed that I was interested in the way men and women interacted. I’d never thought of it before but then realized she was right. It was one of my main interests.
So, “Yeah,” I said now to Gwendolyn’s sister about the processes.
And the sister said, “I thought you’d want to help wax my armpits.”
Which I did. But I mean, who wouldn’t? Or maybe it’s just me, interested in processes.
This shell guy had all kinds of tricks. A shift. A mix. A back-and-forth where they ended up in the same place they’d started. Still, I could tell where that pea went.
“Young man knows,” said the shell guy to himself, while the gypsy kept losing dollars, crumpled and ragged as the flowers on her hat.
“Where ya think?” she whispered to me.
I told her; she won. It made the shell guy mad. He looked me in the face—or as much as he could with his eyes the way they were—shifting the shells as he did.
“Where’s it at?” he asked.
“I don’t want to bet,” I told him.
“Never mind the bet. No bets. Where’s it at?”
I pointed. And was right.
Now, I admired my girlfriend’s older sister. She was in graduate school doing gender studies. She identified as bisexual and looked like a Norwegian milkmaid, but an empowered milkmaid who sometimes wore a beret and totally pulled it off. Blonde and broad-shouldered, a dusting of freckles on her wide cheeks.
For the record, though, I didn’t see this as any kind of sexual invitation. More like a dare.
The whole family was very open-minded. They traveled to Kenya every Christmas. The dad kept almost winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry; the mom did metal art with a blowtorch. And though I’d never actually seen it, I knew for a fact they walked around naked at home.
Open-mindedness was another thing I was into.
So, “Okay,” I said. “Sounds good.”
She heated the green-gray wax in a saucepan, stirring with a popsicle stick applicator, a good start for a process.
Then she took off her shirt. Stood in the middle of the tiny bathroom while I backed up against the tile wall, trying to be polite.
She aimed her sky-blue eyes at me. And casually slung off her bra. Which I didn’t understand at all, since anyone could see that the armpits were perfectly accessible with the bra still on.
I said, “Those look a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts.” Because they did look a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts: exact same areolae and everything. Except the sister’s breasts were bigger and firmer and honestly more appealing overall, which I absolutely did not say.
Anyway, I meant it in a friendly way, a breezy, beret-wearing casual way, like “Hey, wouldn’t you know it, those look a heck of a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts.”
And the sister said, “Thanks. I guess.” Which could have meant almost anything.
A cheer went up. The young man was right! The beleaguered, hat throwing crowd had their hero.
The shell guy said, “One hundred dollars to this boy if he’s right again.”
“I don’t have any cash. I don’t want to bet.”
“No bet. One hundred if you’re right.”
The shells went around, circling and shifting and blurring all over. The pea ticking from one to another.
I picked the shell on the left.
“You sure?” asked the shell guy.
“No!” cried the crowd. “Not that one!”
But I was sure. The young man knew.
Shell guy tipped up the left. And there it was.
But this shell guy, he just shrugged. “No bet, no money.”
The rest of the crowd knew an injustice when they saw one. They’d thrown down hats before. The white guy in the gray suit came over, leaned close. He looked like my dad, except with a ketchup stain on his tie and like he’d made worse life choices
“This son of a bitch,” he said, “been screwing us all day.” He walked me to a nearby ATM. “You’re gonna take out fifty and stick it to this son of a bitch,” he said.
I told him the ATM only gave out multiples of twenty, and then I suggested we take out forty instead.
But this guy who looked like my dad, whom I’d always admired— very straightforward—said, “Sixty. We’re gonna go for it.
Gwendolyn’s sister raised an arm, applied the goo to a furry armpit, and told me to rip it off.
I’d peel; she’d wince. Flushed and sweating. And when she moved, her breasts moved, too. They swayed and wobbled.
The green wax came off with the hair stuck to it, standing up as if the roots grew there from this whole other Frankenstein skin.
“Let’s wax you next,” the sister said, her bra still off.
She spread hot wax over my armpits. I was running out of places to put my eyes so tried keeping them closed. But then she ripped off the wax. And sudden, burning pain forced them open again. I had to make sure my skin hadn’t peeled off with the wax, and god, those breasts were close. Sweat running down them.
She grunted each time she peeled. And I grunted, too. Sexy and gross and painful all at once—but mostly just confusing—while I tried to pretend that this was how sophisticated, open-minded grownups behaved.
The guy who looked like my dad and I strode back to the shell game like lions of Wall Street. Or anyway, that’s how I felt.
I laid my money down on the cardboard box. Real money. Ten hours at the college cafeteria where I worked. A real bet from the young man who knew the pea.
He started his shifty business. All kinds of shenanigans. Shot the pea into the middle nut. Shot it to left nut, then back. But I knew. Called out middle nut.
Then he moved it left. I saw. Or, I mean, I was pretty sure. But I’d already called out middle, and he pulled up middle nut to reveal no pea.
I said, “You moved it after I picked!”
And the crowd said, “He moved it after you picked!”
And I said, “Did you see him move it after I picked?”
But none of them could say for sure.
Nothing for me to do but give up the money. Walk away. Out into the bleary light, figuring out the con as I went and feeling as foolish and ashamed as I have in my whole life.
Except for maybe later that night, when we were all done with the wax, and Gwendolyn’s sister shrugged her bra back on.
Or maybe on Thanksgiving Day in the shower with Gwendolyn, showing off the wax job and walking her through the story—breezily, open-mindedly.
But Gwendolyn’s face didn’t seem open at all. It had this rigid, judgy look.
“What?” she said. “Wait, wait, what? She did what? And you did what? And you were thinking what?”
But all that was a long time ago. Way back, well before my divorce.
Adam Prince earned his B.A. from Vassar College, his M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas, and his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee. His award-winning fiction has appeared in the Mississippi Review, the Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, and Sewanee Review among others. His short story collection The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men was published with Black Lawrence Press in June of 2012. He is currently at work on a novel and several screenplays. He serves as the visiting writer for the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama and works as a freelance editor. See Dr. Adam Prince – Writer, Freelance Editor (adamprinceauthor.com) for more information.