My first kiss tasted like red wine and cigarettes. These are not completely unexpected flavors in someone’s mouth.   

He was 28, I was 16. He was French, a saxophone player with long hair and an earring. We spent almost every evening together that summer, holding hands, talking, eating dinner, drinking wine. He loved to use the salt and pepper shakers on the table to demonstrate situations. As in:  “this is you” – holding up the salt shaker – and “this is me” – holding up the pepper shaker. Then the shakers were off, moving around the table, doing whatever it was he was talking about.

I am not sure what made him want to kiss me that night. We were sitting on some stairs leading to the waters of the Danube. I swear there were shooting stars in the sky, but I could have been imagining things. I didn’t know how to kiss. I was OK with our lips touching, but once his tongue entered my mouth, I wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I pulled away a bit, mostly to giggle, but he interpreted it as reluctance.

He had to pee.  He walked down a couple of steps to the water and did just that. Then he hailed a cab for me and said good night. The next time I saw him, there was no more talk of kissing, even though I spent the previous week listening to my more experienced cousin explain what exactly I had to do in case kissing turned into something more. She described a man’s penis as a wooden stick in a soft, leather case. This, as I later found out, turned out to be quite accurate.

But not with the French guy. Because he explained that he was a butterfly, flying from flower to flower, and he didn’t want to hurt me. That was sort of decent of him.

My first, real boyfriend kissed me while we were sitting at the same spot, along the Danube. I think I took him there, because I felt like it was a good make out spot. He sat behind me, a step up, and leaned in.  He told me he loved me. I didn’t need to hear that, but it was nice. We kissed for a long time, his hard-on stabbing me in the back.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and other kisses, too.

Like the German guy. He was mixing the fuzzy navels at a college party all night, then took me back to his room and showed me card tricks. We sat on the floor of the tiny room, Indian style, and all I could think about was wrapping my legs around him.  I looked at his ring that had his initials on it, and for a split second I realized that I didn’t know what the “D” stood for.

But it didn’t matter. He kissed me, like he was about to swallow my face, holding my head in his hands, stroking my hair. He was delicious.

Years later a good friend and I found ourselves at my apartment, on my brand new love seat, watching late night TV. Very late night TV – past SNL, and the late news, and the infomercials. We drank vodka and grapefruit juice and his left hand drew circles on my shoulder.  “So, we are making out now,” he said after the first peck.  Well yes, we were. And it was wild, dizzying, tender, and incredibly hot. Hours later, when I regained my senses, I was sitting on the floor, with parched lips, panting, wondering if my eyes will ever focus again.  Some days, when I need something to smile about, I still think about that night and his kiss.

My last first kiss happened nine years ago on that same love seat, after a dish of Dairy Queen vanilla soft serve. There was a bowl of apricots in the kitchen, and he cut one up and fed it to me, slowly, slice by slice. My eyes were closed, but I heard the soft clink as he put his glasses on the coffee table and I knew that the next bite will not be an apricot. We now buy apricots frequently every summer, commemorating the event.

So, I’ve been thinking about these kisses, because I’ve been also thinking about the many, many kisses that have not happened before and since then, and the ones that never will.

There was the guy who flew from California to meet me and left me with a partial kiss on the corner of my mouth because, as he later explained, his feelings for me were more like what he felt for his little sister. Or the kiss on the forehead I got from the Germany guy when he came to say good bye before my wedding. Or the embrace and kiss on the cheek from a married friend that burned on my skin for weeks. I thought that surely everyone can see the red outline where his lips have been.

So many possibilities, so many roads not taken, so many mistakes averted, lives changed or left undisturbed. A small turn of the head, or a hug that’s just one short moment longer than necessary, and that’s it. You are not who you are and your life is suddenly off in a whole new direction. And all because of – what? I mean, kissing is like sticking your nose in someone’s ear. Or sticking your finger up someone’s nose.  It’s totally ridiculous.

If I am lucky, I will never have a first kiss again. This makes me sad. I used to enjoy the butterflies, and the bumping noses, and the clinking teeth, and all the weird, slobbery awkwardness. And no matter how hot your marriage happens to be, there is just no way to recreate the Danube, and the shooting stars, and the taste of wine, or the card tricks, or the grapefruit with vodka.

This all sounds melancholy and sentimental, I realize. But these things have been on my mind lately. And while I generally manage to control the kissing, controlling my mind is another story.

Budapest

By Zsofia McMullin

Essay

I like to stand at the foot of the bed and throw myself on the bouncy mattress. My hair splashes around my face like water and I pretend that I am a weightless, powerless body. I turn my palms toward the sky and hold my breath.

That’s what I was doing as he packed his suitcase. The big bed in the hotel room was wide and flexible, so I bounced for a long time. Once the bouncing stopped I stayed there, staring at the cheap chandelier hanging above me. The hotel was in one part of a converted downtown apartment building, near the train station—a formerly bombed-out, turn-of-the-century building along a wide, congested boulevard. Our window looked out on the wrap-around balcony facing a stone courtyard. Old ladies shuffled by our window and a couple of kids bounced a ball on the old wooden gate below as we made love that afternoon.

By now it was dark and we were dressed and the courtyard was empty. Dishes rattled in one kitchen. A baby cried. Someone must have been sautéing onions and paprika in an old iron skillet across the hallway. The news came on and a window pane rattled as the wind blew it shut.

I shivered.

It was July, but the skies turned dark the moment his plane touched down Friday night. We took a cab to the hotel and made small talk. I stayed behind him as he checked in—this time he gave his real name, not like he used to when he had to sign in to my dorm in college. The receptionist called him “Mister” and then shot me a knowing look. I pretended to not notice. I clung to his arm as we walked up two flights of stairs. The lights in the dark hall were operated by motion censors and lit up the way ahead of us one by one like a runway.

Later we walked along the boulevard—maybe we were talking, maybe not, I can’t remember now. We crossed the road and tram tracks and walked up to the bridge crossing the Danube. The river curves at that point, so we walked almost all the way over to the other side before the city opened up in front of us. The drizzle made all the lights seem a bit dimmer, a bit less like a cheesy postcard.

I wanted him to think that this was romantic. I wanted him to love my city as much as I did. I wanted him to love me.

We stopped and leaned on the rail. The bridge gently swayed as a tram passed by.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I came to see you,” he said, matter-of-factly. He smiled his sweet, crooked smile. There was a raindrop on his eyelashes.

“Yeah, right.”

We held hands on the way back to the hotel, his arm curving perfectly into my arm, his fingers entwined with mine. A decade later I can still feel that pressure on my elbow, my wrist, between my fingers. His thumb rubbed the top of my hand.

I took a taxi home after we made love. I ate leftovers in my parents’ kitchen at 2 a.m. and wondered if he missed me in that big bed. I wondered if he really came to see me and whether his hunger for me was fueled by love, or need, or nostalgia, or something else that I would never know or understand.

The next night I stayed with him. There was no use pretending that I was cool or that I didn’t really care whether he was there or not. I took him to all of my favorite spots in the city, trying to etch the image of him and those places in my mind. He fit in everywhere, sure, but he was so much shinier than that drab July weekend, than my favorite smoky café, or our hidden hotel room. So much shinier than me.

All weekend I pretended that Sunday didn’t exist. But here it was and he was packing and I was playing dead on the hotel bed. He giggled when I started the bouncing, but now he moved around the room quietly, with purpose.

He neatly folded his clothes and placed them in his bag. He picked up my clothes that I left on the floor the night before, folded them and placed them on the chair by the door. He put his shoes on. He tucked his plane ticket in his jacket pocket and checked for his phone and keys.

He finally sat down next to me. I knew he wanted me to leave, but I was clinging to every minute with him. He said he’d rather see me leave than watch me wave as he got on the airport shuttle bus by himself.

He lay next to me and put his head on my shoulder. I touched his hair—so painfully soft—and cried.

“Please tell me that it’s going to be all right,” I sobbed.

“I can’t promise you that; I can’t promise you anything,” he said, almost laughing.

“No, I don’t mean just us — I mean in general.”

“Yeah, in general, everything will be all right.”