It’s 5 am here in Germany and I am wide awake. It is dark out, but my body won’t believe that it is still night. The last time I lived in this room, it was dark all the time, dark all morning, dark all afternoon, and always dark in my mind. I lie awake in my bed and am visited by memories. I see the heater where I sat with my cat Arwen during my darkest days. And then I think of the fireplace where I sat last night talking with my parents before calling it an early night at 7:30pm.
I was standing next to the same fireplace the year of my divorce. Everything hurt. Everything always hurt back then, my body, my brain, my heart. Everyone said it would get better, but I wasn’t sure I believed it. This pain seemed eternal, and the idea of ever being whole without him, ridiculous. I was so tired of crying all the time, and even more so of the frequent flashbacks. That night my parents’ friends had come over and instead of hanging out, I had gotten lost in a memory again.
I was 19 years old again, walking through Seattle with the man I would soon marry. I was so nervous. It was our first week seeing each other in person, after months of email and phone calls in which we concluded that God had brought our paths together and was leading us toward marriage. We joked that it would be an arranged marriage, arranged by God Himself.
So we walked around Seattle and got to know each other and I waited for him to kiss me. I didn’t know what kissing was like, and like all things physical and related to sex, it seemed infinitely scary. We stood down by the water, near Pike’s Place Market, looking at Mount Rainier on an unusually clear day. I glanced over to see if he’d do it. I was so afraid, I kind of wanted to get this First Kiss thing over with, just so I could relax and enjoy the rest of our time together. But he didn’t do it just yet.
That night we tried to find a beach near Queen Ann Hill, but I got lost. We ended up next to a military property with a nearby jetty and a lighthouse, so we walked out unto the rocks. Salt water was splashing up all around us and we giggled in the cool night air, feeling mischievous, young, and wild. Then we sat on the tip of the jetty, the moon shining bright above us. Now he’d kiss me, I knew.
He leaned toward me. I held on to the rock and tilted my head back, and suddenly our lips touched. It felt so strange and soft, lip upon lip, tickling in a pleasant way. A nice sensation, but it only lasted a second, and then suddenly his tongue was there and pried its way into my mouth and I couldn’t breathe. It felt like he was going to swallow me, and I panicked. I pulled back, but his hand was against the back of my head. I struggled against his hand, trying to get some space. I fled from his tongue, wanting to feel the soft lips upon lips again. But instead he used his hand to push my face deeper into his, his tongue into my throat. I thought I was suffocating.
I hated it. I hated every long second of it, and when he finally released me, I had tears in my eyes.
“Did you hear that?” he asked.
“What?” I stammered.
“The waves! They started crashing just as we were kissing. That was so amazing! It’s a sign, God approves, he made the waves crash louder and the seagulls sing, and look at the moonlight. Oh, this is so perfect, it is meant to be. Thank you, Jesus, for such an amazing place for us to kiss,” he exclaimed. And before I could say anything, his mouth closed in on mine, and I was suffocating again.
I didn’t say much after that. He rambled on about the perfection of this night, this gift from God, and he picked up a piece of driftwood to commemorate our first kiss, blessed by Jesus. Everything was so romantic, except that I wanted to run and hide. Year after year he’d tell the story of our perfect first kiss and I suffered my secret in silence, that I just didn’t like kissing, confirming that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I thought I was lucky to have met someone who would marry me anyways.
The year of my divorce, I told my parents and friends a short version of the story next to the fireplace.
“What happened to the driftwood?” my mom asked.
“It’s downstairs, in my room” I admitted in a whisper.
I looked at the floor while everyone else exchanged glances. I felt stupid for having the driftwood displayed on my wall. A part of me still wanted to believe that his memory of that night was true for me, even though I had never succeeded in fully suppressing my own.
“Let’s burn it!” my mom said.
And burn it we did. I remember staring into the flames in the fireplace, watching the romanticized lie of my first kiss burn.
It’s been more than six years since that burning. I know this memory has woken me up for good now, so I scramble out of bed in the pre-dawn and switch on the light. I stare at the wall where the driftwood once was. My mom redecorated the room when I moved to California. Instead of the driftwood, the wall is now a world map. A relic of my marital martyrdom, the denial of my own experience, has been replaced with a big map to the entire world. I nod my approval and run my finger from Seattle to Germany, from San Francisco to right here.
My Second First Kiss
My partner Mead is jet lagged too and already got up. I join him upstairs and make us tea while we wait for the sun to rise. I tell him about the memory and he wants to hear what happened later, when I started dating again.
A year and a half after the driftwood burning I go on my very first date. My date thinks by first, I mean my first date with him or maybe first date since my marriage, but I mean first date ever. My former husband and I never went on a date, we met after we had already decided that God wanted us to marry. I never dated anyone before him.
We meet at the BART station and walk through San Francisco. I’m new to the Bay Area and don’t know the city well, so he gives me a personal guided tour. Then he buys me dinner to do at a falafel joint, and we walk to Dolores Park to an outdoor movie screening. We sit on his blanket, eat our falafel, and wait for the movie to start. It took me several months to agree to this date, not because I didn’t like him, but because I am scared. At some point I will have to broach the topic of me not liking kissing. I’m afraid he’ll think I’m a freak or will be disappointed or laugh.
We sit next to each other holding hands. I love the way my hand feels in his, so warm and so soft. And then there’s the way he smells. I keep wanting to sniff at him, and when my skin touches his, I feel little electric shocks running through my body. I have never felt anything like it before. The opening scenes of the movie Adaptation are on the big screen now. I’ve seen this movie. Not exactly a romantic movie, but I am glad, it means there will be fewer opportunities for kissing.
Toward the end of the movie we drape a blanket around us as the fog is rolling in. I like being so close to him. Then the end credits roll, and he remarks how odd the movie was, and how he should have researched it more for a first date. And then he just looks at me and I know I need to tell him about my relationship to kissing now before it’s to late. I run through my speech again, remembering the clever phrases and the little jokes that make it look like a lighthearted quirk of mine, not a Big Thing That Is Wrong With Me.
“Would you like me to kiss you?” he asks. Odd way of phrasing that. Why did he ask what I would like rather than asking permission for him to do what he wants? The way he says this sends shivers throughout my body and I am forgetting my I Don’t Like Kissing Cause I’m Kinda Quirky Like That speech. Instead I find myself nodding and leaning toward him and smelling his neck and then his lips are on mine. My body quivers and I reach out with my tongue until it touches his and I am lost in waves of pleasure. Eventually he pulls away and we look at each other and then we both lean in again and we kiss and kiss until he says he needs to catch his breath.
“Also, I’m really cold,” he says. “We can go to my place if you want. It doesn’t mean-”
“Can we kiss more there?” I interrupt.
“Sure,” he says, “I just want to make sure you’re-”
But my mouth is on his again and my hands are cupping his head.
“Uhm, sweetie?” he says as he gently pulls away again. “I really enjoy kissing you. I am just very, very cold. Can we go now?”
“And then we kiss more?” I ask.
“Sure. You’re really into kissing, huh?” he says with a smile .
“Well,” I say as I struggle to catch my breath, “I guess. Apparently I really do like kissing.”
In a few weeks I will tell him the story of the driftwood. I will recite my I Don’t Like Kissing speech to him and we will both laugh as we remember our first date.
But for now, I just place my hand in his and grin. Soon we will be warm, and then there will be a lot more first kisses.