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Rebecca Makkai: Light Years

A kiss on the lips that might as easily have been a kiss on the forehead.

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Image taken by Flickr user Roman Pfeiffer

By Rebecca Makkai

The Kiss is a bimonthly series curated by Brian Turner.

Some of the many things I don’t remember from that winter, my senior year of college: the moment I realized how late I was, or whether I told anyone else, or why I didn’t consider buying a test or at least going to the infirmary. What I remember is finding the boy inside the entrance to the English building and, because we were alone, telling him. It was a day or two before Christmas break. We’d given each other sweaters, and he was wearing his.

I remember that I took every opportunity to hop down steps, to flop stomach-first on couches.

I remember that I took every opportunity to hop down steps, to flop stomach-first on couches. I was dizzy, nauseated, terrified.

In retrospect, there were alternate explanations for my body’s shutdown. At five-foot-seven, I weighed 115 pounds. I’d had a fever, on and off, for eight weeks. I was in such bad shape that although I passed all my English classes and even my last-ditch-science-requirement astronomy course, there are huge swaths of senior year I can’t remember at all. I’ll re-watch movies I know I saw that winter, and nothing. Books I read for senior seminars: nothing.

I recently learned from my daughter that when Casseopeia was cast into the sky as a chain of stars, an angry Poseidon ensured she’d spend half the night standing on her head. I must have learned this in 1999, as well. I’d have appreciated the story.

I do not particularly remember what the boy said, just that one of us was headed to class, that it was a brief exchange, comforting.

I do not particularly remember what the boy said, just that one of us was headed to class, that it was a brief exchange, comforting. I assume we recited the standard script. (“How late?” “I’m trying not to think about it.” “Everything’s going to be fine.”) What I do remember, sharply, is the sad, sweet, reassuring kiss that ended the conversation. It was not romantic or sexual or platonic. It was not a parting kiss or a questioning kiss or really like any kiss I’d particularly known to exist. It was a kiss on the lips, but it might as easily have been a kiss on the forehead.

It was a time machine to a point in my life where kissing would not be an imitation of a movie scene or a simple demonstration of desire—a point where it would always be in some ways about the fraught past, the fraught future and yet, in that same moment, a refuge from those things.

There are first kisses, and then there are first kisses. This wasn’t the boy I’d spend my life with, but it was the first kiss of the rest of my life.

This wasn’t the boy I’d spend my life with, but it was the first kiss of the rest of my life.

I was not pregnant. By June, the boy and I had broken up and reconciled and then broken up again for good. I had memorized, for my astronomy final, every constellation in the northern hemisphere. Names and shapes and myths I’d forget by July.

When I look up now, I’m back to just Orion and the dippers. The other stories—virgins frozen in flight, venomous snakes, grieving mothers—are a blur.

But isn’t it good to remember they’re there? To know my life was briefly enriched by their gorgeous, complicated names?

Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the story collection Music for Wartime, as well as the novels The Hundred-Year House (a BookPage “Best Book” of 2014 and winner of the Chicago Writers Association Award) and The Borrower (a Booklist Top Ten Debut). Her short fiction was featured in The Best American Short Stories anthology in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, and appears regularly in publications such as Harper’s, Tin House and Ploughshares, and on public radio’s This American Life and Selected Shorts. The recipient of a 2014 NEA Fellowship, Rebecca has taught at the Tin House Writers’ Conference, Northwestern University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; she is on the MFA faculty at Sierra Nevada College. Her website is www.rebeccamakkai.com.

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