I was not ready for my first kiss. All the other girls were smooching their boyfriends goodbye after 7th grade let out each day, and my friends encouraged me to ride the #2 bus home so I could kiss my then-boyfriend, who also rode #2. The truth is I had the option of going home on bus #2 or #3, and sometimes I went on #3 just to avoid the whole matter.
The boyfriend was in 8th grade, an older boy. He had brown hair with a golden cast, big eyes with thick lashes, and he was both charming and funny. I liked him. A LOT. But I wasn’t ready for kissing. I was ready for holding hands, the occasional phone call, and writing each other notes in class. I was ready for having a steady boyfriend, an act made official when a boy asked a girl to “go with” him, not to a place but under a label that could be whispered about, a label that meant hands-off to everyone else, until the inevitable breakup. I was also ready for stretching out my arms and resting them on a boyfriend’s shoulders at dances, swaying back and forth to “Woman” by John Lennon or “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” by Hall and Oates. But kissing? I must have been the only girl in 7th grade who was terrified at the idea of having to press my lips against someone else’s. I thought, Who actually wants to do this?
So when the kiss finally happened, it was because I felt I couldn’t avoid it any longer. The boyfriend wasn’t pressuring me, but I felt the push that comes from what’s expected, a general oppressive sense in the air much like the not-so-great odor beginning to creep under my arms, signaling fluctuating hormones and the onslaught of adulthood and goodbye to my beloved childhood playing dolls and inventing imaginary friends.
The kiss happened after school one day. The boyfriend was heading out the main door and so was I, and the principal, Randall Newsome (one of the kindest, gentlest men you could ever know), was holding the door open to let the swarms of restless students out. And there the boyfriend stopped, leaned over and kissed me.
I was mortified.
I thought “everyone” had seen it, including Mr. Newsome (which I’m sure he did), and I wanted to DIE, a feeling I often had in junior high for various states of being: like when I had a big pimple on my face, or when I wore off-brand jeans, or when my mother refused to buy me high heels and made me go to my first school dance in patent leather Mary Janes.
I wanted to DIE.
(Never mind that the dance was held immediately after school one afternoon, in the school library—which we called the IMC—next to stacks of books and pushed-aside study tables. “Everyone” was going to see my Mary Janes. And what then would become of me?)
At any rate, the first kiss was over and done with, and I didn’t like the actuality of it any more than the idea. I still liked the boyfriend a great deal, though, and didn’t want to break up, which meant facing the pressure of yet another kiss.
That happened two more times, and even though I didn’t think it was possible, they were more dreadful than the first. Once was when the boyfriend and several of his pals showed up outside Kim Powell’s house during a slumber party. I don’t remember how I ended up standing alone on her front porch with the boyfriend, my stomach churning round and round, but there I was, and he kissed me. And what did I do? I went inside the house, straight to Kim Powell’s bathroom, clicked the door shut, and threw up in the toilet bowl as quietly as I could. Would I ever like kissing? What was wrong with me? I didn’t tell anyone I hated kissing, not my closest friends, not my sister, and certainly not my parents.
The third and final kiss was under the yellow light of my own house’s back entrance. When it was over, I said goodbye, shut the door, and walked straight into the bathroom and threw up again.
I was doomed.
I never did tell the boyfriend I didn’t like kissing even though I still liked him an awful lot. He broke up with me soon after, not because of the kiss (I hope) but because in junior high, the lifespan of a relationship was about as long as one episode of Dallas, which seemed really long to me at the time, but not forever. Still, the (ex-)boyfriend and I remained buddies throughout our school days in our little hometown—he even took me to his junior prom. We never did give up on the friendship even though we’d ages ago given up on the 7th and 8th grade idea of us.
I wish all relationships could be like that.
And, as luck would have it, I didn’t “go with” another boy for a long time. I had crushes on boys, hung out with them as they played pinball and PacMan, had them over to my house in groups to watch movies and the Olympics and to play board games. But I didn’t have to fret over kissing anyone because the boys I liked didn’t ask to see me steadily. One was too shy, another liked a girl two years older, and the others, if ever interested, never fessed up to it. Back then, I thought it was a curse, but now I can see it was a blessing.
I didn’t kiss another boy for four more years. In that time span, my emotional maturity caught up with my physical changes. Wearing a bra had long ago stopped being hideous and shameful. And I was not one of the tallest girls in my class anymore—the boys had shot up, and I didn’t have to feel like a clumsy and towering giant. And so, four years later, when that next boyfriend kissed me, I didn’t want to throw up. I didn’t want to take a different bus. I leaned in and didn’t want the kiss to end.
This past summer, when I was back in my hometown for a writing conference, I spotted, from a distance, the first boy who'd ever kissed me. I wasn’t so much surprised that I saw him at all but that I could recognize him, from the back, from fifty feet away. I knew the tilt of his head, how he wore his ball cap set high on his head, and I knew his loping walk, which I had watched a thousand times in the school hallways and as he made his way across the soccer field. I called out his name, and he stopped, and we stood talking to each other in an unfamiliar place, one that hadn’t yet been built when we were growing up. He was still just as charming and handsome and sweet.
During my visit, as we talked about the old days—as people our age sometimes do now that enough time has passed to make those days old—I thought to tell him how terrified I was in 7th grade of a simple kiss.
Then I thought better of it: The years turn the terrifying into the humorous; they make those long-ago moments of wanting-to-die into ones I’m so grateful now I got to live.
And anyway, our friendship endured, despite its shaky beginning. I hope we both remember that much better than one autumn afternoon, just as school let out; better than one tiny, little kiss.