I hadn’t been in Russia twelve hours before some guy kissed me on the neck. Having flown into Sheremeteevo Airport early in the morning, I checked into the hostel where my study group was to be quartered and spent the afternoon sightseeing. Upon returning early that evening, I discovered that — providentially — someone had built a bar right into the hostel. No sooner had I bellied up than the owner invited me to join him at his table. After we’d gulped — actually, he gulped; I gagged — down some vodka shots out of tumblers that really ought to have contained some tonic and lime, he planted one on me.
It wasn’t an air kiss, or even a peck. It was a wet, juicy smackeroo. If I’m under oath, Your Honor, I can’t say just where the man’s tongue was at the time, or what it was doing. Benumbed by the shock as much as by the shots, I turned to the owner’s friend and stated the obvious. “He kissed me on the neck,” I said in Russian.
Chortling, he answered in English: “I think this is normal thing.”
Well, maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t. I don’t remember seeing it done again — not that I was keeping my eyes peeled. Perhaps Russian men reserve neck-kissing for special occasions, like the arrival of a foreign visitor or the defeat of Hitler. What gave my new friend’s statement a hint of plausibility was the pride I heard many Russians express in the dushevnyi quality of their nation’s character. Dushevnyi, an adjective, comes from dusha, or soul, which the Russian language uses to represent the seat of personality in place of “heart” or “mind.” To say that a person is dushevnyi is to say he is spiritually receptive or emotionally honest — an Oprah with better Book Club selections. Coming from someone in an especially dushevnyi state, a kiss would seem like a normal thing indeed.
Well, according to recent studies, teenage boys in the U.S. and U.K. are relating to one another in a tone that goes far beyond dushevnyi; indeed, they’re acting like regular dusha-bags:
“It is normal in the United Kingdom for young straight boys to sleep in the same bed, frequently, and to cuddle,” says Anderson, who has primarily focused his research on white males living above the poverty line. In a recent study, he found that 90 percent of heterosexual undergraduate men in the U.K. had at least once kissed a straight male friend on the lips. Things are not so fluid in the U.S. — he found 7 percent of heterosexual college guys had smooched a straight male pal — but his in-depth studies of American jocks and frat boys, those expected to be the most homophobic, have revealed them to be increasingly comfortable with same-sex physical and emotional intimacy, he says.
Someone should write a social history of the guy-on-guy kiss. In the West, it seems to have gone in and our of fashion. The Middle Ages seem to have been a pretty cuddly time, with Roland and Oliver (and Charlemagne and Ganelon) exchanging kisses, and kings routinely entrusting their sons to gangs of hand-picked playmates known as mignons, or “sweeties.”
By the early modern period, the temperature had dropped. Lord Nelson’s demand for a good-bye kiss from Captain Hardy struck contemporaries — and even more, their Victorian descendants — as deuced odd. Nelson was a national hero and the greatest fighting admiral since Themistocles, so most biographers passed over it without too much comment. His Lordship must have whacked his head on the deck, the unspoken consensus seems to have held.
“What happened?” is the question that could launch a thousand doctoral dissertations. Offhand, I’d pin the decline of affection among men on the Protestant Reformation. No good Calvinist with a healthy work ethic would have time to go around kissing, hugging or proclaiming his love for other guys. He’d be too busy buying cheap real estate in lower Manhattan or scowling over the company ledgers in a big, floppy hat.
Since I remain a chain-smoker, men will be relieved to learn that, when it comes to kissing their kind, I’m a true Puritan. Nor am I much of a hugger. None of this, I hasten to add, makes me especially butch. In fact, some of the most demonstrative men I’ve ever know have been some of the toughest. To a point, this stands to reason: Jocks are nothing if not physical. After a guy’s done 50,000 dumbbell flies, hugging becomes a reflex.
But more surprisingly, there seems to be a link between he-mannishness and verbal demonstrativeness. If you want to find guys who love each other, look in the hip-hop community. There, as far as I can tell, it’s common, even expected, for a man to declare, “I got (or don’t got) love for that [N-word with terminal ‘a‘].” I’m guessing there’s an element of hyperbole here — what such people really mean is that they either are, or aren’t, getting along with So-and-So at that particular moment. But exaggeration is the essence of machismo; from a certain point of view, it follows logically that big, strong men have big, strong feelings.
Call me stodgy, but I hope these extravagant demonstrations never catch on in my generation. It’ll spell the death of an art form. Finding ways to express affection that are both crystal-clear and indirect is one of the few intellectual challenges that attend male friendships. Sometimes, the solution lies in modest gestures — in intuiting when your pal could use a phone call, and when he’d prefer to be left alone. At other times, it lies in omissions — when not to give your honest opinion of a haircut (which will grow out), a tattoo (which will stay there no matter what), or a new girlfriend (who is sure to break up with him sooner or later). It can lie in knowing to decline an invitation because your appearance will only aggravate the marital problems your friend has asked you over to help him forget.
One evening, I puked all over a shower curtain that my buddy’s wife had bought from Bed, Bath and Beyond. Flying out of bed to help me clean up, he screamed, “Jesus Christ, that cost 80 damn dollars!” The next morning, I woke up early and drove to the nearest Circle K and withdrew $100 from the ATM. Slipping back in through the front door, I left the bills on my friend’s kitchen island. Then I headed home, resolving to make myself scarce for a number of weeks.
Who says we’re not subtle?