Image courtesy of Benjamin Busch

This is a kiss that happens in secret. A smoky kiss. I press into it—sometimes a desperate fumbling, at other times calculating and deliberate. Each time, I wonder what it says about me. But then I look in the mirror at the wreckage left to me: the wild, thinning hair; the swollen face; the body misshapen by so many other treatments and drugs—radiation, chemo, steroids, drugs to aid memory, drugs for nausea, drugs for pain, drugs for the side effects the other drugs bring.

Sometimes it’s an ache, a violent cramping in my stomach that drives me to press my lips around the smooth glass and kiss. Lately it’s my bones, as if I’m trying to fill the space inside them, sharp and crumbling. The tumors on the PET scan look like radioactive snowballs tucked into vertebrae and ribs, liver and lungs. I close my eyes and see them glowing.

Sometimes this kiss is the only relief I can find, and I believe in its healing power. And yet, self-recrimination is never far away. It’s still a forbidden lip-lock, and with each inhalation that takes me closer to letting go, part of me wonders if I’ve become like one of Odysseus’s lotus eaters, or if this is somehow just a fast-track toward drowning in the river Lethe. Is it okay to check out, I ask the air—to kiss my pain away with such verdant fervor? Such kisses once sparked passion and signified defiance, but this trembling need is something else entirely.

I wish a good death to the Puritan inside of me who believes suffering clarifies the soul.

In the Netherlands recreational marijuana is frowned upon by the general populace, but there’s no stigma attached if you have a medical condition. It’s recognized as medicine. You’re not a pothead if you’re genuinely sick. But I want to defend my kiss even further: I wish a good death to the Puritan inside of me who believes suffering clarifies the soul. I push away my doubts. With each inhalation, my reflection relaxes—like a cat circling and kneading a nest before settling down, sighing, content.

Imagine pain as tendrils of smoke, exhaled, piping up in one white, faded corner of the room, coalescing around a light-saving bulb. The fan is always on, buzzing the wispy gray contrails into oblivion. Beautiful and ethereal.

My lover is patient. He understands the smoke is also a signal, a nod to the universe that something beyond my control possesses my body, my psyche. I am part shaman when I lift the colorful pipe; I am part dying woman when I take its heat into my lungs.

Every breath resurrects me. Every kiss brings a kind of grace.


The Kiss is a bimonthly series curated by Brian Turner.

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

Ilyse Kusnetz

Ilyse Kusnetz is the author of Small Hours (2014), winner of the T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize from Truman State University Press. Her poems and essays have been published in various journals, newspapers, and anthologies.

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