Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
~ John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
In my freshman year of college, I was sitting in a seminar called “Love and Marriage,” trying my hardest to fight off the night-class daze, when our professor brought up the topic of kissing. “Show of hands,” she said, “how many of you think that the anticipation leading up to the kiss is better than the kiss itself?”
I tensed slightly in my seat, wondering how I was going to get out of this one unscathed. Maybe I just won’t raise my hand for either option, I thought, figuring that next she would ask who thought the kiss itself was better. If I don’t raise my hand for either option, then no one will know.
I had no such luck. Everyone in the class raised his or her hand—except me. So guess where everyone’s eyes went?
“Really?” said my professor. “You think the kiss itself is better?”
I have a very red complexion, and blushing is something that my face will do at the slightest provocation. I could feel it happening as I fudged, “Well…yeah!”
“You do?” the girl sitting next to me blurted, in a voice heavy with weed.
I eloquently said, “Yeah.”
The professor then turned to my stoner neighbor, chuckling, “Guess you just haven’t kissed enough people, Erica.”
I wonder how many of my peers that fooled.
According to The Daily Beast, there are literary records of kissing that date back all the way to 1500 BC. The word itself is traceable back to around 900 AD; it comes from the Old English word cyssan and the Middle English kissen or kyssen. The Kama Sutra, a third-century Indian text, contains an entire chapter on kissing, describing four different techniques. In the Old Testament, compiled around 1200 BC, romantic kissing is referenced frequently, often as part of extramarital affairs. There are also many references to kissing in ancient Roman poetry; The Daily Beast describes the Romans as having “a strong and vibrant kissing culture.” So people have been kissing each other for a long time. The action is commonplace and abounds in pop culture. A good number of movies and books today include kissing scenes, even ones meant for younger audiences. There are poems and songs written entirely about the act of kissing. The word itself isn’t shocking or ignominious; dictionary.com’s definition is “to touch or press with the lips slightly pursed, and then often to part them and to emit a smacking sound, in an expression of affection, love, greeting, reverence, etc.; to join lips with in this way.” Simple. Straightforward. Mundane.
Not for me. Me, who can barely hear the word, even in a classroom setting, without turning stop-sign red.
For everyone else, maybe, or at least for most, it’s not a big deal. But when you haven’t had your first kiss by the time you’re nineteen, it sure becomes one. I often find myself feeling straight-up rancor for the causal way kissing is treated in books, movies, on college campuses, everywhere. Because of this casualness, people assume, certainly by the time you’re nineteen, that you’ve done it. And I’m not talking about just your peers. My professor in that Love and Marriage class incorrectly assumed that all of her students had had their first kiss. And a certain passage in my college philosophy textbook sent me reeling: “To illustrate the nature of time on presentism, consider an event such as your first kiss. For a very long time it was in your future, then, for a tantalizing brief while, it was in your present; now, alas, it is in your dead past.” No, Ryan Nichols, it is not in my dead past, thank you very much. The word “kiss,” for me, is a humiliating reminder of the fact that I haven’t had it—and, therefore, that I’m different from the vast majority of others my age, in this small but significant way.
Through the entirety of my middle school and high school careers, while others dabbled in awkward hand-holding and got entangled in one another’s braces, I found that neither kissing nor boys as an entity were especially high on my list of priorities. I tried to tie cherry stems with my tongue like everyone else, but my inability to do it did not particularly concern me. I had absolutely no male friends back then. In my mind, boys made the subtle transformation from despicable beings who yelled out uncalled-for and cringe-worthy comments during middle school sex ed classes to only slightly less despicable beings who took pretty, popular junior girls to their senior proms rather than taking slightly less pretty, slightly less popular senior girls. Needless to say, I considered the vast majority of boys in my town entirely un-dateable. I did not pursue them, they did not pursue me, and I was okay with that.
By the time the end of high school rolled around, this had changed only slightly. I began to wonder why I’d never been noticed by boys, though that fact still didn’t particularly upset me. Some of my friends had been kissed by then, but, for the most part, they considered their first kisses less-than-perfect experiences: slimy unpleasantries administered without warning, or casual pecks exchanged with boys who turned out to be jerks, or gay, or both. Those were their definitions of a kiss. My definition, though, as a senior in high school, was something in the future; something worth waiting for. Something I was determined not to regret.
The definition changed at the beginning of college when, midway through October of my freshman year, I was seated in a room with six or so other girls, and we were exchanging awkward romantic stories. I figured that this was a no-judgment zone, and decided to let it fly: “I haven’t had my first kiss yet.”
Dead silence fell. Clearly it was not a no-judgment zone. All heads turned my way, the blushing started up just like it did in that seminar classroom, and finally, one of the girls said, “Guess we’ve got to take you out more.”
Just like that, the definition changed. Not for me, necessarily. I was still determined to hold out; I told those girls that I hadn’t waited eighteen years to squander my first kiss at a party. That was their definition, though, and, as I soon discovered, the definition of most college students: a casual, meaningless exchange of saliva, the number of which you’ve had is directly proportional to the number of parties you’ve been to. If you haven’t had it, it’s a cause for concern.
And some of this concern then began to affect me. Why hadn’t I had it? I still didn’t regret the decision not to meaninglessly hook up. Yet, essentially, I’d never even been given the opportunity. If I had been prettier, or more charismatic, or put myself out there more, met more guys, could I—would I—have had it by now? The old cherry-stem dilemma only now began to worry me: when I finally get around to kissing someone, I thought, he’ll already have kissed loads of people—everyone will have, cause that’s what people do—and I’ll be terrible at it!
This swelling of panic began to subside over the summer, when I forced myself to remember that I had not been offered an opportunity for a meaningful first kiss; therefore, it was okay that I’d never had it. Drunkenly hooking up at a college party, just for the sake of being able to say I’d been kissed, wasn’t worth it for me. There was still a small, hormone-soaked part of me that did, and probably always will, want to be kissed, however meaninglessly, by one of the cute boys in my college’s male a cappella group. But that part wasn’t strong enough to overpower the desire to wait for the “right” moment.
My fears of having some kind of anti-boy aura were dispelled over that summer, before my sophomore year. That was when I met…we’ll call him Hector. We met at work and discovered that he was going to be a freshman at my college in the fall. We exchanged phone numbers—“you know, if you have any questions about the school!” I said. He invited me out to dinner about a week later under the guise of him wanting to find out more about the school, but I knew full well that it was a date (I’m not that naïve, thank you very much). We then went out a couple more times that summer: bowling, mini-golfing, et cetera. He was extremely nice, the ultimate in gentlemanliness: opening car doors, insisting on paying for everything, whatnot. I wasn’t very attracted to him physically, but I was kind of viewing this as dating experience, plain and simple. I’d gone on multiple dates, and it was a successful experience. I had that under my belt, now. The fact that it was with Hector, specifically, didn’t matter so much to me. I figured that it would be a brief summer thing; once we got back to school, he’d be busy with his Biology major and crew, and I’d be caught up in my lack of a major and Singers, and what we had, whatever it was, would just fizzle out.
Not so. We continued to see each other once we both got to school, and, before I had time to even properly assess how deep in I was, there we were in my townhouse kitchen, saying good night to each other, about two weeks into the school year. We’d only ever hugged good night before, but this time, he went for it, leaning in for the kiss.
Next thing I knew, my head was buried in his shirtsleeve; I’d hard-core rejected him and turned it into a hug. He backed up a little and said, “What?”
“What?” I parroted. I pretended I hadn’t noticed what he was trying to do, thereby dumbing myself down significantly.
“Don’t freak out,” he said in a low, would-be soothing voice that did not succeed in soothing me. He was wa-a-a-a-y too close.
“I’m not freaking out,” I said in a weak little voice, octaves above my usual contralto. I was in fact completely and entirely freaking out.
He slipped his arms around me again. “Hey,” he said, “don’t freak out.”
I stepped fully back and studied the chart of National Food Holidays that a couple of my housemates had made the other day. Did you know that September 16th is National Guacamole Day? “I am, I’m freaking out!” I admitted.
Why? Why? For days after that awkward little encounter, my mind wrestled with a possible reason. I’d been offered my first kiss, and I’d turned it down. Who did that? And it was a good situation, too! Not under-the-fireworks ideal, maybe, but not a drunken hook-up either: a nice kiss good night from a really sweet guy that I’d been seeing for two months. Straight-up turned it down. What was wrong with me?
After a good deal of speculation, I figured it out. When you’ve gone twenty years without ever having been kissed, a kiss becomes one thing and one thing alone: a stinking big deal.
It’s not a big deal. That’s what I try to tell myself. For heaven’s sake, just suck it up and get it over with. But no matter how much I told myself that, it remained a huge deal: a milestone so massive that, when I was finally faced with the opportunity to have it, my brain completely short-circuited and I couldn’t handle it. And I’m sure that, when I’m again confronted with the possibility, it’ll cause an awkward hiccup for both me and for the poor, unfortunate, faceless boy.
There’s another reason, as well; one that is probably a little more subconscious but no less responsible for the absence of kissing in my life. It’s something that only fully hit me when I re-examined that passage from my philosophy book. “Your first kiss…for a very long time it was in your future…now, alas, it is in your dead past.” The first time I read that passage, it made me feel sorry for myself. Shame on you, Ryan Nichols, for assuming that all college students have been kissed. But after thinking about it months later, post-Hector, I realized: Alas, it is in your past. In that passage, however subtly, Nichols feels sorry for people who have had their first kiss. Not for people like me. I remembered the Love and Marriage class, too: every single one of my classmates thought that the anticipation of the kiss is better than the kiss itself. Even the professor was surprised when she thought I felt otherwise. Remembering this turned my whole situation on its head: perhaps, as counter-intuitive as it is, and as contrary to the general attitude of society, the situation that I’m in is the better, more desirable one. I’m still frozen in that phase of anticipation, like the “bold lover” on John Keats’s Grecian urn. Do not grieve, Keats says. I think there is some small, subconscious part of me that knows what my Love and Marriage classmates and Nichols and Keats have come to know: the anticipation is better. I’m just trying to make it last as long as possible.
“Kiss” is, for me, a word that has elicited emotions ranging from nausea to longing to frustration and back to nausea; my only hope is that, one day, it will elicit nothing but satisfaction. Until then, I’ll appreciate—maybe even enjoy—the anticipation.