First Kiss

It was inevitable, I suppose, that a woman would create my first moral quandary.

It was near the end of my eighth grade year when plans for a class trip to Disneyland began.  I was caught off guard when, Carmela, the girl I liked best in the class, suddenly asked me if I was going to take a “date” to the Magic Kingdom.  I had missed the memo that “dating” was now a thing, that having a girlfriend had changed from being repulsive (or at least something you kept a secret) to being desirable.  So, I answered “No,” disdainfully and with conviction.

Carmela didn’t take it personally, although in the moment she seemed disappointed in my answer, and she quickly set her sights on my soon-to-be-ex-best-friend, Mike.  Suddenly, it was clear that the boys and girls were pairing up and I was behind the curve.  Carmela was looking out for me though and let me know that Suzanne, a perfectly suitable replacement, was hoping I would ask her.  I did so, and secured my very first date.

I mean, what was not to like about Suzanne–long dark hair, turned-up nose, and somehow she managed to show off a lot of leg when sitting in class despite the lengthy, Catholic-school uniform skirt.  I didn’t know what lust was yet, but I was interested in finding out.

Some time before the trip, the girls formed a conspiracy.  They each tied a piece of string around their wrists, a string with three knots in it.  The boys were told, if you were to break your girl’s string, you would owe her a kiss.

I broke Suzanne’s string some time before Disneyland and there seemed to be an understanding that the big moment would come some time shortly after.  I agonized about it for days.  It wasn’t that I was against kissing.  I also wasn’t particularly interested in it yet, but I had no moral objections.  The problem was that I knew that Suzanne’s mom did not want her kissing anyone.  I could not have known this if Suzanne hadn’t told me.  Why she chose to torture me with this information, I have never understood.  It was clear that she had every intention of getting herself kissed, but I was an altar boy and a rule-follower.  Wouldn’t kissing her, in light of her mother’s objection be a conscious transgression?

I was sure I was in a potential sin situation and decided to consult an expert.  The easiest way to talk with a priest was to go to confession, so the following Wednesday I rode my bike down to the church.  I entered the dark confessional and went through whatever sins I could think of and then interrupted the ritual to ask if I could meet with up with him after his sin-hearing session was over.  The deep, disembodied voice told me where to wait.

I can’t remember his name and I wish that I could.  He was tall and powerfully built and his head was shaven.  I remember that he drove an expensive car and that parishioners sometimes whispered about a priest driving a nicer car than most in the parish.

I was nervous as he walked toward me near an entrance to the church, and we began a stroll around the church grounds.  To a boy of my age the aura of a priest was still magical.  They spoke with God.  They touched God.  Their word was the word of God.  I felt awed by his personal attention.

Luckily, he was kind and patient, and I told him of the conspiracy of the strings.  With a serious look on his face he asked, “And just how many of these strings have you broken?”

Mortified, I quickly assured him that I had broken only one.  Even at that age I knew better than to over-extend myself.  We walked and talked in the cool of the early evening, the priest with his hands clasped behind him and me with my hands jammed into my pockets. I can’t remember anything specific that he gave me in the way of guidance, but somehow he managed to reassure me that my intentions were pure and that a kiss wasn’t going to derail me into hell.

The Disneyland trip finally came and Suzanne and I spent the day holding hands as we went from ride to ride feeling very adult.  We ate lunch, bought gifts for our parents, and thoroughly enjoyed our day away from school.  However, the thought of kissing her later that night lurked in the back of my mind constantly.  After all, I had never done it before.  So many things could go wrong, I thought.

The bus dropped us off at the school at the end of the day and we walked from there to her house.  We turned into her tree-lined street just as it was getting dark.  I glanced toward the front of the house to make sure that her mom wasn’t peeking through the drapes or lurking on the front porch.  I tried to remain nonchalant and managed to escort her to the porch without tripping.  In those few seconds as we exchanged goodbyes important questions raced through my mind:  Would our noses get in the way?  Was it important to close my eyes?   Should I worry about mono?

Suddenly we weren’t talking anymore and I realized it was time.  In that moment I had my first experience with what Hemingway called “grace under pressure.” I leaned forward and kissed her quickly but fervently on the lips.

She seemed pleased, and I was greatly relieved.  We repeated polite goodbyes, and I began walking down the quiet sidewalk alone.

I was about three houses away when I heard my name being called, and I turned to see Suzanne walking quickly toward me. I stood in surprise as she approached me, and clearly overcome by passion, she pulled me toward her and gave me a second, lingering kiss on the cheek.  Without a word, she turned and retreated to her house.

I stood there for a long minute mystified. I’ve gotten used to associating that feeling with the behavior of women, but at the time it was new to me.  Everything was new to me.

But what filled my eighth-grade heart that night, the sensation that began on that night and which I still both crave and am surprised at every time I experience it, was feeling of being drenched by the emotion of having been chosen.  Her simple, spontaneous, and unexpected act of affection overwhelmed me.  It said, “I choose you” or “you are special to me” or “I like you better than some of the others” or something like that.

At least, standing under that street light that night, that’s what I thought it said.  And I had never felt that before.  And to this day, I think it is maybe just the best feeling ever.

 

If you enjoy stories of me being a fool for love, you might also enjoy Visiting Love: One Letter at a Time and Thank You, Paul McCartney.

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Shakespeare Sunday: Smooth Talker

R: If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

J:  Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this;

For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

R:  Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

J:  Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

R:  O! then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;

They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

J:  Saints do not move, thou grant for prayer’s sake.

R:   Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

Welcome to the weekly literary nerd edition of “Retired, Not Dead”!

Most of you will recognize this as the very first words exchanged between Shakespeare’s “star-crossed” lovers from maybe his most well-known tragedy, “Juliet.”

OK, it’s actually known as “Romeo and Juliet” but if you’ve read the play, you know that this is really Juliet’s story.  Romeo is pretty much an accessory.  Juliet gets the great speeches, the deepest conflict, and the most achingly perfect death.

However, in the passage above, Romeo does have his moments.  It took my faithful poetry anthology Sound and Sense (Arp–9th edition) to point out to me that this lovely exchange, when lifted from the play, is actually a sonnet written as dialogue.

Romeo has been struck with the lightning bolt of love when he sees Juliet for the first time, as I was when I first saw Olivia Hussey playing Juliet in the 1968 film.  I  thought it was cruel for Franco Zeffirelli to unleash this 15-year-old beauty on my 15-year-old self when I first saw the film.

OK, the dialogue.  The beauty of Romeo’s appeal to Juliet for a kiss is that he frames himself (his lips, rather) as “pilgrims” approaching a “shrine” and then continues to work the worshipful metaphor with references to “saints,” “devotion, and “prayer.”  Juliet plays along as she tries to chastely and gently deflect his desire for a kiss.

Thankfully for Romeo, her resistance only lasts for fourteen lines of poetry before she allows his reverent kiss.

Ah, young love in iambic pentameter.  It doesn’t get any better than that!  Happy Sunday, everyone!

Visiting Love: One Letter at a Time

letters

A fraction of the total!

When I delved into a long-forgotten box of cards and letters that my wife and I had written to each other when we were courting from 1970 to 1974, I had no idea what I was getting into. We met as high school juniors but did not begin dating until the fall of the year we graduated. From October of ’71 to May of ’74 when we were married, the letters flew hot and heavy between my home in San Diego and hers in Orange County.

There is a sort of loveliness in re-living a time when all communication was not instantaneous, before texting and talking were considered synonymous. We dated long distance for a little over two years. I began to get serious about the relationship when the price of gas reached 53 cents per gallon.

Once I broke into the box, I thought that I’d read over a couple of letters, laugh at our youthful expressions (Mary used to think that lots of things were “far out!”), eventually feel the wide gulf between our teenaged selves and the adults we had become, and do what Mary had advised all along—“Why don’t you just toss them all?”

But I couldn’t. As I picked up the first few randomly, I felt myself thrust back in time and the immediacy, the honesty, the humor of the letters hooked me. I had decided I would only read her letters to me—those were MY letters. The others belonged to her, and she could do what she wanted with them.

Randomness was not satisfying though. I found myself seeking a narrative, the story and sequence of how we had fallen in love. The earliest letters sported 6-cent stamps, but more importantly they were dated with legible postmarks, so I began to arrange the letters chronologically. All 187 letters.

I started from the very beginning, when we were just friends who had been thrown together by a retreat we had both attended. That friendship continued off and on until October of 1971 when I apparently more openly declared my interest in her because the tenor of the letters changed dramatically. We would frequently write twice weekly, catching each other up on work and school and making plans for every weekend when I would drive up to spend time with her.

The first letter of every week seemed to have a certain glow about it as she would recount the happiness we had enjoyed in our limited hours together. She seemed anxious to make sure I understood everything she had said or done over the weekend and we both (I peeked at a few of the letters I wrote also) were frequently apologizing for any moodiness or distraction we might have exhibited.

She spent a tremendous amount of time telling me how wonderful I was and how much she appreciated me as a man and as a boyfriend. I spent an equal amount of time making sure she knew how lucky I felt that she had chosen me and letting her know how happy I was to be with her. The warmth and affection literally radiated off of the pages

I have yet to finish reading all of the letters and wrap my mind fully around that time of my life. However, what I have read filled me with a sense of renewal, a sense that there was really no reason we could not recapture that liveliness and passion. I felt a little sad that we had stopped writing to each other twice a week. I sense restarting that habit could make a world of difference.

Forty-one years later it would be easy to describe these feelings as naïve, but I don’t feel that way at all. It’s like looking at a slightly yellowed portrait of what love is like before it has endured the bruises and scars that time eventually brings. It is a portrait that I’m happy to have come across. It is a portrait worth cherishing.