When I am twelve, my friends are divided amongst two distinctive groups: those who have been kissed, and those who have not been kissed. Desperately, and against notions of popularity, I long to be amongst those who have not been kissed. My first kiss, a few weeks after my eighth birthday, was a mistake of wordplay. Paul Forilio had taken me behind his family’s large oak tree. He had inquired, “Do you want a French kiss?”
I had stared at him, bewildered, and waited for his Mom to tell us to play where she could see us.
Then, it had dawned on me. Oh, he means a Hershey kiss. “Okay,” I smiled politely, extending my palm for the sweet.
Never did I expect his lips to clamp around mine, or the tongue that knocked against my molars. Horrified, I shoved him backward. Against my parent’s rule of not crossing the street without adult supervision, I ran home, trying to spit out Paul’s French kiss the entire way. When I found Mom, hunched over to plant her tomato garden, I burst into tears. “Mommy, help!” I shrieked, “Paul gave me a French kiss! Not a Hershey one.”
These words that, hence, I’ve laughed about with my mom for years.
When I mention this at Claudia’s sleepover, expecting that same laughter, I’m met with abrupt seriousness. Theresa supplies, “That doesn’t count, then.”
“Yes it does,” Priscilla defends. “All you need to do is press your lips together and that’s a kiss. What do you think?”
The question is directed to Claudia, the “little sister” of our group. The five of us are seated on separate corners of Claudia’s queen sized, princess themed bed. Due to her honorary “little sister” status, Claudia is permitted to act like a child and braid her doll’s hair. However, this is at the cost of being shunned from grown-up discussions.
Surprised by the attention, Claudia glances at Priscilla, her fingers continuing to twirl fake blonde hair. “Um, maybe we should look it up. Like, do you have a dictionary?”
“Yeah,” responds Theresa. “Kissing should be in there.”
Claudia does have a dictionary. She hands it over to Priscilla, who reads Webster’s definition and then inquires about the specification of Paul’s kiss. “Did you, um, touch with the lips especially as a mark of affection or greeting?”
Four pairs of eyes peer at me solemnly. This will, after all, decree whether or not my lip virginity remains intact. Feeling very mature, I decline my head gravely.
The investigation continues. Did you salute one another with the lips? No.
Did you come in gentle contact? No.
“Alright then,” slamming the dictionary shut, Priscilla offers me a glance to convey her pity. “I’m sorry, but it sounds like you still haven’t had your first kiss.”
“Good,” I respond. “I’m never doing that again.”
Claudia rushes to kissing’s defense, “Of course you will.”
Priscilla begins, “As the only person who has kissed an actual boyfriend.”
Theresa whispers, “Not this again,”
Priscilla speaks over her, “Kissing is awesome. Sparks flew when I kissed my boyfriend. We kissed in his mom’s car when she left to pump the gas. And, my foot seriously lifted off the ground.”
I don’t understand how Priscilla’s forgotten that “my boyfriend” has a name, Ricky. I also wonder if she remembers that this is the same Ricky who, two years ago, Theresa talked into tipping his head back so she could pour Orange Soda down his nose.
“Your foot?” Claudia asks, “It lifted off the ground?”
“Yeah,” eager to share the experience again, Priscilla climbs off her bed. “Like this,” she extends her right foot backward.
Claudia shoves at Claudia, trying to get her to shut up. Claudia ignores her, “But did you mean for it to bend backward?”
Seemingly against my will, I’m curious. “My mom is a nurse,” I say. “She says that things like heartbeats are involuntary muscle movements. Those are movements you can’t control.”
Priscilla scowls, irritated by the interruption.
“Oh,” says Claudia. “So is kissing like that? Does it cause, um, foot lifting movements that you can’t control?”
Appeased by this line of questioning, Priscilla smiles and nods.
“Okay,” I say. “Well, I still don’t want to kiss a boy. Maybe I will, though, just so my foot will move like that.”
I meet Claudia’s eyes, and she claps enthusiastically in response.
That night, I can’t sleep, my mind overturned with thoughts of involuntary foot movements. I wonder, will kissing make any other parts of my body move without control? I slip out of my sleeping bag, tiptoeing passed Claudia’s sprawled form, to Claudia’s bookshelf. Stacked beside her Webster’s dictionary is a tiny thesaurus, and I bring the book close to a plugged-in nightlight. I flip through pages until I find the word “kiss.”
Kiss; the movements of touching or pressing one’s lips against another person’s or objects. I read until my eyes burn and the words blur, unable to find anything about foot lifting. I return to my sleeping bag, vowing that even for the sake of science, I will not kiss a boy.
Beside me, Claudia shifts. I think about how strange it is, that girls have to kiss boys. Being a girl has never felt confusing before, until recently, when we started talking about kissing. I think further, has being a girl always felt this weird? I remember a long-ago argument when Claudia ordered me to love Cinderella. “You have to love Cinderella,” Claudia had complained. “Girls love Cinderella.”
“Frankly, that’s ridiculous,” I had answered. Obviously, Mulan is the best princess.
Nevertheless, I can’t imagine what life would be like without being a girl, and I don’t want to. Sometimes, though, I wish being a girl doesn’t mean having to love Cinderella. I glance outside, suddenly upset and desperate to go home.
Mom told me that if I’m sad, I can always pray. I clasp my hands together and mouth a silent prayer, Dear Mary, full of Grace, please don’t let us grow up. Please, I want boys to have cooties again.
I pray myself to sleep.
In the same week that I join the group of “those who have not been kissed,” it cycles around school that our Spanish teacher can’t teach us anymore. This is because she kissed a woman, and in our tiny Catholic school, this is against our policy. Theresa passed me the note in History, and I write back, why did she kiss a woman? And what’s a policy?
Theresa returns the note, she’s a lesbian. She’s a girl that kisses girls. And a policy is a rule.
I respond, that sounds like the word gay. Mom’s friend is a boy who wants to kiss a boy. She says it’s okay.
Theresa passes me the note again, her words pressed darker than they were before, She’s wrong.
Instead of answClaudiag, I crumple the note into my desk. I feel nauseous, though I cannot identify why. Lately, I am constantly uncomfortable in my own skin, like my flesh is stretched too tight and doesn’t quite fit. Priscilla continues to cycle through boys she “like likes,” while Theresa and Claudia watch enviously from afar. Claudia has begun to join them, and I am the only one to mourn the loss of her dolls. It’s not until my neighbor and best friend, Molly, takes my hand at fifteen, a quiet whisper of this is how I held Eric’s hand, that something lovely spreads over me. Abruptly, I think I understand myself, and I try not to smile into Molly’s touch.
My life is a series of moments where I think I understand myself, and then I don’t. At four, I think I am a princess. At twelve, I think I am a tomboy. At fifteen I’m convinced I am a lesbian. I can still feel the imprint of Molly’s hand, warm against my palm from a year previous. I try to tell her this, face overheated and words stuttClaudiag, and she interrupts me to laugh. “Oh god, please don’t tell me you’re gay,” she says. “I can’t-” her smile falters, “-handle that.”
That. The word curdles sourly, and her expression morphs into disgust.
“No, no, I’m not,” I answer. I force a smile, and the fiction physically hurts. “I’m only joking, but I fooled you, didn’t I?”
When I return home that day, I ask Dad, “When would you do if I was a lesbian?”
He answers, voice disdainful, “I would be very disappointed.”
After Dad goes upstairs, I tell Mom that I have a gay friend. I think but cannot say that I am that friend, and although she says nothing, I know she is realizing the same thought.
When I go to bed that night, I shove a pillow into my mouth to muffle my screams. I already knew I wouldn’t have Molly, but even worse than the denial is the disgust.
A month later I want to kiss boys, and as a result, I kiss a very pretty redhead named Jeremy. He wears checkered shirts and chews only Double Mint Gum. Despite this being my second kiss, or according to Priscilla my first, I instinctually know where to put my lips. I tell him how to kiss, and even when he listens to the instructions exactly, the kiss is always wrong. I decide that I do not want to kiss boys.
Every night, I take my rosary and pray for God to help me. Mostly, this makes me feel better, but sometimes my prayer makes me feel worse. When this happens, I can only think of the first time my faith filled me with dread. I had been small, and about to receive my saint’s name. This is an honored Catholic tradition, where membership to a church becomes official when a person adopts a saints name beside their birth name.
I remember being excited because Mom was planning a party. I would receive my first “adult rosary,” and the beads will be made of crystal. In church, prepared to receive my saint, a boy whispered that he chose Francis. Happily, I whispered to him that I picked Mary. Then the boy who chose Francis told me that some people want to have different names, but that these names are different genders.
At first, I didn’t think I heard him right. We are dressed nicely for the ceremony, divided in pews according to boys and girls. Francis and I are one of the few boys and girls who meet in the middle.
“Like,” he explained quietly, “If I became Mary and you became Francis.”
I shrugged and didn’t understand why he was upset. I already knew that there are males who preferred other males, and likewise, females who preferred females, and again, I shrugged. Mom informed me that this was okay; we should love unconditionally and leave judgment to God. She said this with a tone I had never heard from her, I think she sounded almost angry. I didn’t understand the fuss, of course, that’s okay, why did we even need to talk about it?
When I received my name, I didn’t feel any honor. I sat down in my pew and wondered what would happen if I became Francis. At my party, Mom tied the rosary around my wrists, and they reminded me of snakes.
I think of this moment, and place the beautiful rosary into my burrow. I decide that I will do as I want, and a year later at sixteen, I kiss another redhead. This one is named Deanna, and although like the feeling of her soft palms against my hair, I force myself not to show my discomfort against her lips.
Not long after, I tell her that I am not a lesbian. “But you don’t like boys, do you?” Deanna asks.
“Well no, but to be honest I don’t think I like girls either.”
“What?” Deanna says, “Are you sure it’s not that you just don’t want to be a lesbian?”
“No, I just don’t think I like girls.”
“What do you like then?”
A year later, when I am seventeen, I think I’m a freak. I don’t want to kiss a girl and I no longer want Molly. She’s become too preoccupied with strumming her guitar and kissing boys to notice our dwindling friendship.
Molly catches me walking around the block, and brings me to her friend’s birthday party on a whim. I meet a boy who has dark hair and wears box-shaped glasses. We talk about science, and somewhere in between this conversation, we both agree to go on a date. He owns the first pair of lips that I kiss comfortably, and although I don’t experience any sort of “involuntary muscle movements,” I don’t want to cringe away. This is a kiss then, a kiss is not composed of “involuntary muscle movements” or any other pleasant synonyms. A kiss is just that; lips against lips, and nothing more.
Once, we are sitting on his living room couch when I joke, what would you do if I were a boy? He tells me, grinning and sarcastic, I’d be very scared. What would you do if I woke up a girl? I rationalize that he would be very scared, and I would have to comfort him. Suddenly pressing, he asks additional questions, and I inform him that I wouldn’t see a difference. It would still be him, he would just be a her, or a him-inside-a-her.
When he acts confused, I laugh and pretend that I am joking.
This isn’t a major point in our fleeting high school relationship; however, it remains something that confuses him. I grow into an angry teenager who becomes angrier when I learn that I confuse everyone on a good day, and disgust them on a bad day. I decide not to date after him, which is easily accomplished, because dating has hardly been stimulating.
When I meet John Burke, as a twenty-year-old college student, I am smiling when he kisses my cheek. My friends talked me into creating an online dating account. I kept it only because John began the conversation with a question (do you have a problem with nerds?) and then only to talk to him. This is the reason we’re sitting beside the vending machine of a bowling alley, the building nearly abandoned, just finished with our game. “I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable,” he says. “It’s the last thing I want to do. Feel free to say no, but is it okay if I kiss you?”
Miraculously, I want him to. He surprises me by kissing the underside of my fingers, my palm, and then the top of my head.
Giggling, I pull backward. He says more, he says words like beautiful, and smart, and out of my league. When we kiss each other’s lips, the movement is mutual, and I feel a sense of rightness I’ve never felt before. I don’t notice until his chest bumps into mind that I’ve wrapped my arms around his neck to bring him closer.
You’re beautiful, I think. I tell him, instead, that he is handsome.
He pauses, suddenly shy.
Oh, I realize. This is why people kiss.
One year later, I finally stumble upon the word demisexuality. I read the words over the internet to John like a breath of fresh air. Demisexuality is a person who does not experience sexual attraction unless they form a strong emotional connection with someone. They feel only emotional attraction and do not experience physical attraction.
“That makes sense,” he says. “I’m glad you can understand yourself more.”
I tell him he’s beautiful, and we both laugh.