The Kiss by André Aciman
i’ve written about this kiss before. I’ve tried to capture it on paper many times, always with the desire to hold on to it, to retell it, and in retelling not just remember but relive and revive everything I felt on that cold November night so many years ago. I wrote about it, as I am about to do again, to put into words what I already expect words will do, as they always do: they’ll alter what happened all the while claiming to exhume what memory has long since lost track of. I don’t want to argue with memory, I want that moment back.
I’ve written about this kiss many times. The kiss outside Caffe Reggio one night on MacDougal Street, the kiss against the glass panel of a bakery just off Straus Park near West 105th Street late one night long after the bakery had closed, the kiss against a wall on Via di Santa Maria dell’Anima in Rome when it was so late that dawn seemed a few minutes away, the kiss on a freezing park bench in a New England college town, the kiss in a tight elevator somewhere in the Seventh arrondissement.
The kiss did happen but not in Greenwich Village, not on the Upper West Side, and not in Rome, Paris or New England. I don’t need to say where it happened; it’s one of those private moments you tuck away for no clear reason, certainly not one you can justify or explain to yourself, much less to others. I might want to blame my reluctance to disclose the place to a form of discretion, but it isn’t even that. It’s more like wanting to keep time and place out of the picture, because I’ve always shunned specifics, and, by so doing, avoid confronting myself. This is why I keep returning to the kiss ever so obliquely and always under cover of fiction. Fiction, after all, is the white lie with which we trace the real itinerary of our lives.
I know there are aspects of that kiss that I can no longer recall, just as I am sure that over the years I’ve been misremembering much of what transpired that evening. Just thinking or overthinking, the kiss could easily change what it was, the way a misplaced comma, or a clumsy adverb, or even the wrong past tense, would change what happened. There are days when I know the kiss is something I can’t undo and need to keep returning to, obsessively. But there are also days when I know my life was derailed that night, and I’m not sure I want to know why.
I remember that while kissing her I was oblivious to everything around us and had completely let go of myself. I remember thinking that, here I was at the age of 27 and, though this was by no means the first time I was kissing a woman, it was the first time I’d kissed anyone. With her, I finally realised what a kiss was, what it was meant to do, what it brought out in me, and yes, how incredibly intimate one could be when kissing. I remember the joy of knowing that I was as human as everyone else I knew. I also remember that if the kiss was true for me, it was no less true for her.
I have always been reluctant to let my emotions sway me or allow someone to pull me out of myself and then respond completely to me, complicated and tortured as I always fancied I was. Kissing her as I was doing that evening was what I’d often done to draw close to many women. You dated, walked to a movie theatre or a restaurant or bar, you held hands, kissed, made out, made love. With her it was not the usual moves; it was so different, almost like finding why I’d been put on planet Earth, like coming home on a cold and rainy winter evening and finding all the lights on and the fireplace already lit. She was my home. She defined the man I was. No, she didn’t define the man I was, she simply reminded me of the man I knew I was but never quite trusted I might allow myself to be.
We belonged to the same tribe, had come down to Earth from the same constellation of souls and had finally met in a town I still can’t bring myself to name.
But, to quote Nietzsche, I’ve given you the moral before telling the tale.
We were at our usual bar that night and had drunk two Irish coffees each. It was our go-to drink, something we did together, though who knows if either of us really liked Irish coffees. The barman who had gotten to know us over the weeks knew we liked our drinks spiked. We were, we kept telling each other, just friends, but very close friends, though I frequently suspected that my friendship was a bit of a sham, as I knew I wanted more than just friendship from her. Everything I did each day was done in her shadow, even when she wasn’t with me. The food I ate, the books I read, the music I listened to, the friends I had — I projected her onto everything around me. I wanted her to know and be liked by everyone I knew.
We met almost every evening at the bar, had our table, and we sat, drank, and talked, laughed, because this too we had in common: maybe it was the thing that bound us the most — our identical sense of humour. No one else understood our humour. We were debating whether to order a third Irish coffee. It was Friday evening and after a difficult week we were both happy to put our work behind us. We had already decided to see Duck Soup the next evening.
I’ve written and rewritten this scene more times than I’ve had it published. At some point she tells me that she thinks of me all the time. That’s strange, I respond, because I can’t stop thinking of her. I want you to kiss me, she says. So I kiss her, in full view of the entire bar, which is pretty crowded on a late Friday evening, but neither of us cares what others can see, think, or have to say. Our third drinks arrive. Are you telling me all this because we’ve had a lot to drink, I finally ask? Yes, she replies, but I would have told you anyway, drunk or sober. She’d told me about her lovers, I’d told her about mine. We know we’re not the most reliable partners.
An hour later, we are on our way out and as always tip the barman and the waitress. We’ve barely stepped outside when she stops, and leans into a brick corner as she stares at me and says, kiss me again now. I’m cupping both her cheeks in my palms, and as I’m kissing her, she holds my whole head and kisses me even deeper. And suddenly I feel as though her entire body is taking me over and yielding to me, to everything I’m doing. I can feel my crotch against hers, pushing ever so mildly, because I don’t want to rush anything seeing that this is the first time we’ve kissed, but then I find myself pushing again, as she pushes into me, softly and mildly too.
Suddenly, everything we were doing makes sense, and as I’m kissing her, I have a fleeting sense that this is why sex was invented, that this is why people kissed, and made love, and went inside each other’s bodies and then slept together, because of this and only this, and not for any of the many reasons I’d imagined or been guided by during my entire life. I press her more tightly yet, and she too is pressing me against her, as if she’s anticipated my last move and has already responded to it before I’ve even started mine.
I can’t remember what we said, but I’m sure we said the kindest, sweetest things. As I walked her home, we kept kissing almost at every corner.
Then something happened. When we reached her building, I hesitated, and maybe because I hesitated, she hesitated, and for some unknown reason, neither of us did or said the most obvious thing in the world. I could so easily have invited her to my place, she could have invited me to hers, but neither of us did. We had had enough to drink and, for at least a whole hour, had overcome all manner of inhibitions, though neither of us was particularly prone to many.
What spelled the end of our evening may not have been inhibition at all; instead, it was a sudden rush of reluctance and a strange foreboding, as though something were telling us to watch ourselves, that this could be dangerous, that maybe, maybe, all this had come too soon for us and that the friendship which had brought us together now stood in the way of our bodies. We said goodbye, both I am sure, pleased with what had happened earlier but not especially displeased by our hasty retreat.
The next day, I called to arrange for Duck Soup, but she didn’t answer her phone. I couldn’t leave my home for fear of missing her call, but she never called. The following day, Sunday, I knocked at her door, but she wouldn’t answer. Her neighbour told me that she’d left for the weekend early on Saturday morning and had asked her to mind her cat.
That evening I had a powerful panic attack. A friend came by and took me to the closest emergency room. And suddenly, as I’m lying down on a narrow gurney, I realised why we had not slept together. I feared she’d change her mind after our first night, just as I suspected that I’d most likely change mine, though not so soon. The question was who would be the first to reject the other. If this were a game of winners and losers, then I had most certainly lost. But in losing, I had also lost track of myself. Life stopped for me on that November night.
We didn’t speak for a year after that. It was the worst year of my life. I moved to another city.
Then one day she showed up. We had lunch together and once again we laughed about almost everything. We were friends again. One evening that same week, she came over and said she wanted to cook dinner for me. The next day when we met for a quick bite in a café, she confessed she had come hoping to spend the night with me. But she hadn’t made that clear at all, I said, while I, after our kiss a year earlier, never allowed myself to hope for anything. Well, you should have, she said, and didn’t speak to me for almost another year.
Then, once again, the phone call, the meals, the long walks together, the in-jokes. But we never dared bring up the night of our Irish coffees. One night, I finally did allude to that drink, because we were in a bar and didn’t know what to order, and I suggested our old standby. She remembered it was in November, wasn’t it? You know it was, I said. She tensed up, and after I dropped her home, we stopped speaking for the longest time.
The years come and go; we are still friends, but we know how fragile everything always is, which is why we speak in circles and laugh at ourselves when we know we’re speaking in circles. Sometimes, in mixed company, just a look and a smile, a wink or a coded silence, and we know, we just know. And knowing perhaps is good enough.
A few years ago, she made a muted pass again. Once again, I didn’t even realise it was a pass, which explains why she sent me a short message
that same evening calling me a thickheaded dunce. She forgave me. But I’m sure she wouldn’t have had I responded.
Then one day she sent me an email asking if I was celebrating. I asked if this was her tacit way of reminding me it was her birthday.
No, not my birthday, she said, your special day, November, remember?
I had stopped remembering. Or had never celebrated the day with anyone.
So I asked: did that night mean as much to her as it did to me?
She didn’t answer. So I took her answer to mean yes.
But then, on second thought, her silence probably meant no, though she didn’t have the heart to say so. And this was good enough, too.
I’ll never know. All I can do is write about the night that my life skidded, and I was never the same again.