Kyle told me once that when he kissed me he could tell he was kissing a white woman. Kyle dated both white and black women before he and I started dating, so he had a more-balanced experience than I did. I only dated white men. Actually, I briefly dated one man of Chinese descent and one black man, but I didn’t kiss either of them. When I kissed Kyle for the first time, it was the first time I kissed a black man.
Now, 16 1/2 years after that first kiss, I can tell the difference between kissing a black man and kissing a white man. It’s not just the difference between kissing my husband and kissing a man who’s not my husband. It’s how the man’s lips feel against mine. Same as how Kyle can tell that he’s kissing a white woman when he’s kissing me. I remember an episode of that TV show Northern Exposure, – which I started watching in 1991 during the second season and had the now-defunct experience of waiting for reruns to see the earlier episodes – an episode in which the character Chris Stevens is dismayed that an ex-lover can’t tell whether she’s kissing him or his half-brother Bernard. It was a weird sort of magical realism that if you’re familiar with the show is completely in character – except that Chris is white and Bernard is black! Even back then, I knew that that was improbable. And not in a magical-realism kind of way, but in a “neither the writer nor the director thought of it” kind of way.
I’d say I haven’t kissed anyone since I started dating Kyle, but that isn’t true. 10 years after that first kiss, when my play Miss Hannah Comes Back was in rehearsal, the director and I demonstrated a kiss for two of the actors. They were young and didn’t have a lot of acting experience, so it was easier for the director to explain what he wanted by demonstrating it. So he and I talked it through – which is what actors typically do before any physical contact –, spoke the lines leading up to the kiss, and kissed.
Kissing when you’re acting isn’t like kissing for real. It’s still a kiss, but the passion behind it is the passion that the actors create, the passion their character has for the other character.
Although, it was odd, after that rehearsal, that director asked me if he was a good kisser. Why would he care? I replied with the truth, that I didn’t remember his lips, but his hair.
When I put my hand up around the back of his neck, an impulse I found in the moment of demonstrating the kiss, I felt the evenly cut ends of his straight, flat hair. That was strange. I’d gotten used to wrapping my hand around someone’s neck to kiss him… and feeling kinky hair. That’s the texture that my muscle- and touch-memory tell me belongs with a kiss.
Sometimes I think Kyle finds my lips inadequate. I remember once after we kissed, just a few years into our marriage I think, Kyle said appreciatively, “Nice soft lips.” Immediately I started thinking that my lips must be hard, or not have enough surface. Did he not like how I kissed? Did he want me to kiss him in a different way? I know I asked him about it but now I can’t remember what he said. But I do try to soften my lips when we kiss.
The first time I kissed Kyle was in March 2000; we’d known each other for 11 years by then. He’d come from Seattle back to the East Coast to visit his sister and her husband and their first child, who was just one month old. When Kyle was planning his trip, he said, why don’t I come visit you, too, because Baltimore isn’t that far from Northern Virginia. The first evening after he arrived, we were sitting on my sofa, and as the conversation went on we kissed each other, and I told him I was in love with him. I’d realized it back in November, not said anything when I came back to Seattle at Christmas; I was so afraid that he would say that his interest in me of eight years prior was gone, it was too late. I was delighted, humbled, and relieved when he said he was in love with me, too.
What I remember most about us kissing the first time was how wonderful and tender and fond it was, kissing someone I was already in love with, who was already in love with me. I never loved any man I kissed before, or kissed any man I loved because I’d never been in love before.
I’ve kissed with love, and I’ve kissed without love, and I know which I prefer.
We’re careful when we kiss in public. Not so much around where we live; we’ve been living here long enough that we know people won’t be hostile or even stare at us. But other places, like where he’s from in Southern Virginia, we don’t kiss outside the house. We get enough second looks when we’re out and around together. I remember the first time I thought, as we curled up in each others’ arms one night there in his parents’ house, that there was a time when a black man and a white woman risked a lot by being together.
What’s interesting is that I’d been working on this essay for a while before I realized that our kiss in March 2000 wasn’t the first time we kissed. During that interest of his, eight years earlier, he was visiting me in Atlanta, and we were flirting and he kissed me, but I thought I couldn’t date unless I wanted to marry someone, and I don’t remember the kiss. The second time we kissed was in Seattle that Christmas I didn’t tell him I was in love with him. I drove him home from dinner at my parents’ apartment and he said he hoped the world wouldn’t end on New Year’s Day, that being Y2K, cause he didn’t want that to be the last time he saw me. And we kissed, that friendly quick on the lips kiss that was him not telling me that he was in love with me. Then a bright light shone into my car, a police officer having driven up behind double-parked me. But we weren’t in any danger. We laughed, Kyle got out of the car, and I drove away.
On 9 March 2002, when the judge who married us said, “I now pronounce you husband and wife, you may kiss,” it was the first time either of us had ever kissed someone to seal the pact of marriage. It was a symbolic kiss, as brief as the one in my car before Y2K might destroy the world. What was longer was our hug, us holding onto each other tightly, both of us happy that we’d gotten to know each other as friends, fallen in love, and now we were in that unbelievable state where every so often one of us says to the other, “Wow, we really got married!” and the other replies, “How did that happen??”
Whenever Kyle leaves the house, or I leave the house, I have to find him and kiss him. Even after 14 years of marriage and we don’t kiss as passionately or lingeringly as we used to. He laughs fondly at my superstition, but we have to kiss. Otherwise, something bad will happen to him and he won’t come back and I’ll never see him again.
Photo credit: © 2002 by Debra Gerth.