Image courtesy of the author

El mundo nace cuando dos se besan.
The world is born when two people kiss.
—Octavio Paz

From Sioux Falls to Santiago to Paris, from Teheran to Khartoum to Reykjavik, Kyoto to Darwin; from the panchayat forests of India to the Giant’s Causeway on the coast of Northern Ireland; in taxis and at bus stops and in kitchens and in sleigh beds and in haystacks and at airports around the globe people are kissing one another. This is not the scripted passion of Hollywood. The kissing that takes place in our lives is far more complicated and messy and human than the celluloid veneer of the silver screen. The kissing doesn’t stop when Ken Saro-wiwa is murdered in Nigeria. It doesn’t stop when members of Pussy Riot are beaten and thrown in prison. It doesn’t stop to consider Ai WeiWei as he gathers sunflower seeds for The Unilever Series. It doesn’t stop when Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrap the Reichstag in fabric and even when Christo says that it takes “greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain.” The great and recorded moments of history mostly elide over the profound moments, like the kiss, that comprise the very essence of our individual lives.

One of the most memorable kisses I’ve ever witnessed took place at a Muay Thai fight in Bangkok.

There are variations of the kiss that we need to explore and learn from. That’s what this new series is about. The ineffable kiss transported into language. The sublime kiss. The ambiguous kiss. The devastating kiss. The kiss we can’t take back. The kiss we can never give. The broken kiss. The lost kiss. The kiss that changes a life.

One of the most memorable kisses I’ve ever witnessed took place at a Muay Thai fight during a ten-bout championship night at the Lumpini Boxing Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand. The main event featured a young up-and-coming fighter facing off against the old champion. Tickets in hand, my wife and I sat ringside, eating sticky rice packed in bamboo containers and drinking Singha. A traditional musical trio—a hand drummer, a string player, and a wooden flutist—improvised music to match the intensity of the fight. The fight itself lived up to its billing as a pairing of two masters of the craft. And yet, what intrigued me most, stunned me, really, was what happened immediately after the young fighter kicked the old champion in the head, laying him out cold on the canvas. Initially, and predictably, the young fighter ran barefoot to his own corner, near us, and leapt up to stand on the first set of ropes, his gloved hands lifted upward in victory while a cheering of flashbulbs covered his body in light. At this moment, at the apex of his success, his knuckles and feet still stinging with the win, the young champion now crossed the ring to kneel before the old champion he’d just dethroned. The beaten man sat on a stool now, a cool towel draped over his head, aided by members of his team beside him. With the world watching on, the young champion bent over and kissed the tops of the other man’s feet. An astonishing act of reverence. I’ve never seen anything else like it.

I typed the last paragraph while sitting on the eighth floor of a cancer ward with my wife.

And yet. I typed the last paragraph while sitting on the eighth floor of a cancer ward while my wife received two whole units of hemoglobin, a dose of steroids given as a precautionary measure to reduce the swelling in her brain, and a series of other drugs. We heard a harp playing a few rooms down, and soon learned a wedding was underway. The bride was still in her twenties, and in my mind’s eye I pictured the family gathered around the bed, a photographer in the back, everyone in their finest, some with tissues in their hands, the priest leading the ceremony. Such a fierce and soon-to-vanish thing—love. The bride’s mother reaches over to gently moisten her daughter’s lips with a cool swab, brushes her hair back from her forehead and rearranges her daughter’s opened veil. In Spanish, the priest says, “You may now kiss the bride,” and the young man leans over to kiss his wife. And she doesn’t close her eyes at first. She wants to see it all. To take everything in before the tears overwhelm her and, as weak as she is, to raise her arm and touch the side of his face as they kiss.

It’s like this the world over. Some kiss a trophy and hoist it high over their heads. Some kiss the Blarney Stone. Some kiss the very ground at their feet.

As you read this, a teenager practices kissing a mirror, imagining that first-ever kiss with S____ from fifth period science class, her eyes open until the moment lips touch their own cool reflection, an inexact gesture toward transcendence, the violin rehearsing for its duet, testing the limits of the soul within the human frame, learning to shape the notes that rise over the music and then disappear.

A man in his seventies leans over the railing of a hospital bed to kiss his younger brother on the forehead—once the respirator has been switched off, the EKG flat-lined into a digital silence, while those gathered around the bed have turned to hold one another, some of them sobbing, one of them considering how tender the kiss is and how the arc of two lives over decades of moments has condensed into this one sweet gesture, though the cooling body of the dead can offer no gesture in return.

A soldier, soon to return to war after a few days on leave, lies in bed with a woman whose last name he doesn’t know, the word muerto tattooed on her inner thigh. He wants to wake her and also wants her to continue sleeping forever with her head on his chest, knowing that when she wakes she will kiss him and that it could be the last kiss of his life. And yet, when she wakes, he will kiss her as if it isn’t the last one ever, as if it’s just a kiss between brief lovers, a small hunger of the body and not a portion of the soul saying good-bye to a world near the end of its days.

There’s a mother in the county jail, kissing her nine-year-old through the bulletproof glass in one of the visitor booths, the child angry and crying and sullen and saying “I love you, too” as the bored deputy on duty pauses a moment to let them kiss a moment longer like this before tapping the microphone and saying—as the mother motions with her hand as if smoothing the child’s hair away from her eyes, the way she sometimes does early in the morning or when putting her child to bed—“Time’s up. Time’s up.”

And the USS Oak Hill has docked in Virginia, with Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta getting the coveted “first kiss” on the dock with her girlfriend, Petty Officer 3rd Class Citialic Snell. It’s a kiss worthy of a postcard, a lean-back movie star kiss with two brunettes kissing until the world around them diminishes and sloughs away. This isn’t a 1940s kiss. This is an eighty-days-at-sea-kiss. This is the longed-for kiss, the I’ve-thought-of-this-moment-every-night-since-I-last-saw-you kiss. A kiss of solitude. A kiss of absence. Something made of starlight over a moonless ocean. A kiss to mark the sailor’s return.

Our attempt in this series will be to focus on kisses that—at least in some sense—attempt to bridge the gulf, to connect us to one another on a deeply human level.

And there’s a couple making love in a Mosul park, not far from the Tigris river, pausing to look each other in the eye for longer than they’ve ever done before, the sound of a pickup truck rolling not too far off through the eucalyptus grove, an explosion in the distance, as they continue to kiss now, though shifting somehow in response to the world and the cruel weight of time itself, to kiss soft and slow, kissing truly for the first time, a kiss that erases the kisses they’ve shared before, or maybe simply changes the nature of their kissing forever on from this point—now that they’ve slowed themselves long enough to really see one another and as they imbue the word love with an altogether new layer of meaning.

Over the next several months, we’ll invite a wide variety of writers and thinkers to share their thoughts on a specific kiss: an unexpected kiss, an unforgettable kiss, a kiss to circle back to. Our attempt in this series will be to focus on kisses that—at least in some sense—attempt to bridge the gulf, to connect us to one another on a deeply human level, and, as closely as possible, to remind us of words like tenderness, passion, and, if we’re lucky, perhaps, love. The first piece in the series, by Nick Flynn, appears today.

Nick Flynn: “The Last Kiss

The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers is available from Norton in February 2018.

Brian Turner

Brian Turner is the author of the memoir My Life as a Foreign Country (W.W. Norton), and two collections of poetry—Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise (Alice James Books). He received a USA Hillcrest Fellowship in Literature, an NEA Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, the Poets’ Prize, and a Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. His work has appeared on NPR, the BBC, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and Weekend America. He’s published in National Geographic, The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Vulture, Shortlist (UK), and other fine journals. He directs the low-residency MFA at Sierra Nevada College (SNC Tahoe).

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